When Adult Animation Wins Over Live-Action Family Fare

By  · Published on August 16th, 2016

Are things going topsy-turvy at the box office?

Animation for grown-ups is not supposed to do well, right? And live-action fantasy films remaking Disney classics tend to be hits, right? Besides the expected enormous second-weekend drop for Suicide Squad, the latest box office figures seem to be out of whack. But should the success of Sausage Party ($34m) and disappointment of Pete’s Dragon ($22m) be surprising?

The former shouldn’t be, but it is. Long after the days of when Ralph Bakshi was making hits with not just R- but also X-rated animated films, it’s been difficult for Hollywood players in particular to make a case for adult-targeted toons. Rodney Dangerfield couldn’t make it happen, and neither could Bakshi anymore. The Dangerfield-inspired Adam Sandler managed a PG-13 animated feature, but its box office numbers weren’t encouraging.

So how did Sandler’s Funny People co-star, Seth Rogen, make it happen successfully? And without it being based on a hit TV series a la South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? The key for these things isn’t that it needs to be low-brow raunchiness, because Team America: World Police didn’t do all that well, and high-brow is definitely not the idea, as we just recently saw with Anomalisa, not to mention many other films in the past.

I want to say it was the combination of low-brow material and positive reviews, but that wasn’t helpful for Team America, either. There’s no certain way to know, but it just seems as if the original, clever comedy elements of Sausage Party, regardless of it being animated, were desirable at this point in a summer where almost everything else has been both familiar, and then mediocre at best.

Another theory is that a hint of a familiar idea in Sausage Party helped in its wider than expected appeal. Many have likened the movie to Toy Story only about food stuff and with much dirtier humor, though with a similarly philosophical theme. Was this just the perfect movie right now for people who grew up on those Disney/Pixar movies, the last of which arrived six years ago?

Whatever the case, Sausage Party managed a number of records that are actually sort of notable, at least compared to most record-breaking claims these days. It blew away the competition for R-rated animated features and will very likely be the first one to reach $100m, so long as its ‘B’ grade Cinemascore doesn’t mean it’ll have weak word of mouth. It also had the best ever August opening for animation, which is fairly shocking.

Here are some past wide movie openings (roughly adjusted) for animated features rated PG-13 and R worthy of comparison:

Sausage Party (2016, R) – $34m
Beowulf (2007, PG-13) – $34m
The Simpsons Movie (2007, PG-13) – $93m
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007, R) – $4m
Eight Crazy Nights (2002, PG-13) – $14m
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (2000, R) – $19m
Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996, PG-13) – $39m
Bebe’s Kids (1992, PG-13) – $6m
Cool World (1992, PG-13) – $12m
Heavy Metal (1981, R) – $10m

As for the new live-action remake of an old Disney movie, the box office for Pete’s Dragon is not surprising. It also can’t really be compared to the recent hits that redo the animated classics. The original Pete’s Dragon is apparently not well-known let alone a brand with a fanbase or a significant nostalgia base or much interest at all. Nobody was really curious to see a fresh new take on that particular property.

Live-action remakes of old live-action Disney movies have done okay but very rarely huge business, and usually it still has had to be a broader comedic movie or something sci-fi and/or starring Robin Williams or The Rock, rather than a sweet and folksy and relatively star-free effort like what David Lowery did here.

Even then, the broader stuff may not be of interest now, either. Nine Lives, which isn’t Disney but redoes what that studio did successfully back in the day with stuff like The Shaggy Dog, bombed, too. Speaking of which, adjusted for inflation, Disney’s 2006 Shaggy Dog remake made almost identical the amount of the Pete’s Dragon remake.

Pete’s Dragon could very well do finein the long run through word of mouth and return viewers. It’s not especially original or clever or memorable, but it offers a rare kind of clean, well-directed emotional entertainment that we need right now, and maybe the few of us who appreciate that over crude content will keep it going. The movie is old fashioned enough that it ought to have old-fashioned staying power.

The thing is, and this weekend’s attendance may prove it, crude is king still. Yet Pete’s Dragon did perform better than the latest Steven Spielberg picture, The BFG, which is also Disney and is almost the same sort of story but with farts, and that’s interesting since Pete’s Dragon is also easily likened to Spielberg’s classic hit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

It came close to the adjusted opening of Spielberg’s Hook, which did the idea of a new take on a Disney animated classic thing way before Disney did it themselves. Of course, that Peter Pan update wasn’t exactly a success, either. It was more akin to today’s non-Disney live-action versions of stories used for Disney animated classics (see last year’s Peter Pan-inspired Pan).

Here are some past wide movie openings (roughly adjusted) for live-action remakes of live-action Disney movies worthy of comparison:

Pete’s Dragon (2016) – $22m
Race to Witch Mountain (2009) – $28m
The Shaggy Dog (2006) – $22m
Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005) – $17m
Freaky Friday (2003) – $32m
The Parent Trap (1998) – $21m
Mighty Joe Young (1998, original was RKO during Disney era) – $20m
Flubber (1997) – $50m
That Darn Cat (1997) – $12m
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) – $17m

At the end of the day, Sausage Party and Pete’s Dragon could wind up very close with their final grosses, though the former will be more profitable if that’s the case. Their impacts are therefore quite different, with Sausage Party likely spitting out a sequel, which will not be nearly as popular, and maybe inspiring more raunchy but less smart R-rated animated features.

The risk of making Pete’s Dragon with a fresh director who has an indie sensibility may not be as positive for similar projects going on at Disney. Fortunately for the live-action Winnie the Pooh project penned by Alex Ross Perry, that has a lot more name recognition and favor so it shouldn’t be seen as threatened now. But the glitzier and more bombastic approach seen with Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella will continue to be the norm.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.