In 2010, the Walt Disney Company released “Alice in Wonderland” starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowski, Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, and Stephen Fry. With an estimated budget of $200 million, Alice went on to make over $1 billion worldwide. It was a hit that many attributed to Depp’s lovable Mad Hatter and the newness of the 3D technology.
Six years later, Disney released “Alice through the Looking Glass” as a sequel focusing on Depp’s Hatter and his family. With an estimated $170 million budget and the addition of Sacha Baron Cohen, the film flopped, making less than $300 million worldwide. Whether this was due to the allegations leveled at Depp by Amanda Heard the week of the film’s opening, Depp’s inability to be a main character when playing an eccentric (see “Mortdecai” and possibly “The Lone Ranger,” which was more about Depp’s Tonto than Armie Hammer’s titular character), or the mundanity of 3D technology that was novel when the first film released, the six years between the two films, or the meandering story line of the film itself, “Through the Looking Glass” couldn’t hold a candle to the original.
Now, in a “hold my (non-alcoholic) beer” moment, Disney’s going to commit the same mistake with four films and a theme park at stake. “Avatar” was released the winter of 2009 and became the biggest grossing movie of all time with $2.8 billion worldwide. (As of this writing, “Avengers: Endgame” may or may not take the top spot.) Disney collaborated with Cameron and added an Avatar-themed land to its Animal Kingdom. It has purchased 20th Century Fox and now owns the rights to the Avatar intellectual properties.
In 2009, 3D was a true novelty, and “Avatar” capitalized on the effect with its beautiful scenery and amazing alien landscape. The movie faced scant competition from “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Blind Side” its first weekend. The next weekend, it faced Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes”, and after that it dominated the film competition until February’s “Dear John.” The story itself is a retelling of the story of Native Americans if they had actually decided to destroy the explorers that came to the New World. It’s not exceptionally original with its quasi-back to nature message and its ignoring of real history.
“Avatar 2” is scheduled to be released in 2021, 12 years after the first film. While “Avatar” made a lot of money, it’s not a beloved film. Its main appeal was in the new world’s Cameron was able to bring to life. The story was trite and untrue. “Avatar 2” won’t be able to capitalize on a pent-up desire for its characters or world (like Star Wars), and it won’t be able to rely on a stable of characters people have to come to love (like Marvel). Instead, it’s a risk with almost no reward. Even if “Avatar 2” scores a billion dollars, it will be a comparative flop. If it does less than that, it could sink the three sequels that are to come after it and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Whether or not these films are successful will depend on what Disney expects from them. If the company is okay with decaying box office totals in the hundreds of millions with the understanding that the films are keeping its Animal Kingdom in the public eye, maybe box office won’t matter so much. But an outright flop of the first sequel will create shockwaves that will reverberate throughout the company without being limited to the movie division.