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Why Doesn't Disney Make Better Sci-Fi Movies?

Chicken Little
(Image credit: WDAS)

At this point it’s not exactly controversial to say that Disney is the king of the box office. Of all the movies that have grossed $1 billion or more at the global box office, the vast majority are from Disney franchises. It seems like the Mouse House can do little wrong, with its hits running the gamut of genre and style. However, there is one genre that Disney has had a much harder time cracking: science fiction.

To be clear, I’m not talking about Star Wars or even the more sci-fi focused parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those movies are obviously big successes, but the fact that Disney had had to buy other companies to find success in the sci-fi space actually helps prove the point. Basically every original sci-fi movie from Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney Animation has struggled to find an audience, even though a lot of the movies aren't actually bad.

The Black Hole

(Image credit: Walt Disney Studios)

Disney’s Early Live Action Science Fiction Movies Really Struggled

While the definition of science fiction, like fantasy, can be a little flexible, one of Disney’s first true sci-fi movies was actually something of a success. Escape to Witch Mountain told the story of aliens (who looked like normal children) trying to find their way home. It’s a simple movie that doesn’t look much like a science fiction film beyond the premise, but it was successful enough to earn a sequel. Unfortunately, that sequel wasn’t as big and the burgeoning franchise died. An attempt to reboot Witch Mountain in 2009 with Dwayne Johnson was equally unsuccessful.

Disney’s first attempt at a real hard sci-fi movie, with spaceships, robots and all, came at the same time a lot of similar projects did, about two years after the release of Star Wars. Basically every studio tried to recreate that magic, and Disney’s attempt to break into science fiction was The Black Hole. The movie has all the elements that we would expect from a movie set in deep space, but where Star Wars was a film full of excitement, most would describe The Black Hole as boring. It did not work out.

The next notable science fiction film from Disney is the iconic Tron. And to be sure, the movie is iconic. Today it's seen as potentially one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. At the very least, it's a cult classic, but part of what defines a cult classic is that it’s a movie that isn’t widely embraced by the audience. Tron was reasonably well reviewed in its day, and its reputation has only grown over the decades, but the movie was not successful at the box office. In fact, it was considered a flop for years. Eventually interest grew to the point that sequel Tron: Legacy was made, and while it performed better than its predecessor, Tron 3 never got off the ground. A third Tron may still happen, but it's been a long and tough road for the one sci-fi property that can even be called a Disney franchise.

Adventure ahead in Treasure Planet

(Image credit: Walt Disney Feature Animation)

Walt Disney Animated Sci-Fi Hasn’t Had Much Better Luck

For decades, the name Disney was synonymous with animation, and in animation, you can do pretty much anything. That would seemingly make science fiction an easy opportunity, but that has not been the case. The few times Disney has gone into outer space in science fiction for something animated, it has gone about as well as live action.

Treasure Planet was a movie directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo who directed such hits as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Treasure Island in space was their passion project, as it was a movie they’d been trying to make for years, but the rest of the studio had no faith in it. The weekend after Treasure Planet debuted to a rough box office performance, the studio announced it was taking a tax write off on the film.  It’s one of Disney's most famous flops.

Other animated projects haven’t fared much better. Early computer animated projects like Chicken Little (which, yes, is a sci-fi film) and Mars Needs Moms (which was distributed by Disney, but created by ImageMovers Digital) are not well remembered, if they’re remembered at all. 

We’ve seen recently that Pixar is not immune to this seeming curse. While Wall-E is one of the few exceptions to this rule, the recent Toy Story spinoff Lightyear struggled at the box office and has become the studio’s lowest-grossing project to date.

Taylor Kitsch in John Carter

(Image credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Mission To Mars And The Catastrophe That Was John Carter

We all know about the success Disney had with  the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and even the struggles the studio has had with other theme park based films like The Haunted Mansion or The Country Bears. However, you've probably forgotten that before all of them Disney made Mission to Mars, which was also inspired by a theme park attraction, directed by the great Brian De Palma. The fact that you didn't know this movie existed says all that need be said.

On paper, it’s easy to see what Disney was going for with John Carter. The movie was based on The Princess of Mars, the first in a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was about traveling to other planets and wars between alien races. If the movie was a success, the franchise was built into it. Alas, there would never be a sequel.

John Carter didn’t even do that badly at the box office. It made $300 million globally in 2012, which isn’t bad. The problem is that the movie was expensive, costing more than $300 million based on reports, so it was ultimately a money loser. And to be fair, whatever success the film had, John Carter has never obtained the cult status that even Tron did. So while there may have been a decent audience at the time, it was never that committed.  

Searcher Clade in Strange World

(Image credit: Disney)

What Is It About Disney And Science Fiction? 

Certainly if you take Marvel and Star Wars out of consideration, Disney has far fewer blockbuster hits at the global box office, but the company has been making animated films based on fairy tales for almost 90 years and has a franchise of five successful live-action pirate movies that were inspired by a theme park ride. Disney can make popular movies in basically any genre. 

But there’s something about science fiction that the House of Mouse can’t seem to figure out. Something has gone haywire almost every time. If all of these movies were terrible, the question would be why making one of quality is seemingly so hard. But some of these movies have been pretty good, yet the audience just doesn’t seem to care. Maybe there’s just something about the way audiences view traditional science fiction that they don’t see Disney as the place to find that form of entertainment.

Disney has some upcoming movies with an opportunity to perhaps change some minds. November will see the release of Strange World, a Journey to the Center of the Earth-style animated feature, and the word is Disney is looking to give the Pirates of the Caribbean movie treatment to a Space Mountain film. Perhaps one of these will be the film that finally makes a solid sci-fi hit for Disney.

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.