Comparing classic Disney to modern releases with Hollywood’s bottom line


Are Disney movies getting better? Sometimes it’s hard to gauge whether modern hits like “Zootopia” and “Frozen” will ever live up to the pantheon of Disney classics that we were all raised on. Seeing as nostalgia makes it difficult to look at these films without romanticism, I turned to numbers “” box office numbers “” for answers. Taking box-office sales as a rudimentary measure of cultural impact at the time of release, we can navigate the story told by the numbers. It’s an imperfect and biased story, but an interesting story nonetheless.

At first glance, Disney movies have indeed made more money with every passing year, making “Zootopia” and “Frozen” the 24th and ninth highest-grossing movies of all time, respectively. The Disney classics are nowhere to be found on that list, which is due in part to inflation, and the increasing number of theaters around the world, which makes it hard for a movie from the 60’s to compete with a recent release.

When we eliminate those factors by looking at the highest-grossing movies domestically (adjusted for inflation), the result is very, very different. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is the 10th highest-grossing, “The Lion King” is 19th, “Fantasia” is 23rd, and “The Jungle Book” and “Sleeping Beauty” are 32nd and 33rd, respectively. “Frozen” can be found a long way down the list at 106th, behind six other Disney animated films.

Think about that for a moment. Consider the pervasiveness of Elsa, the endless Olaf plush toys and the fact that you couldn’t go anywhere without being bombarded by the ubiquitous “Let It Go.” It was a cultural phenomenon, and nobody seemed to be able to stop recording themselves doing their best impression of Idina Menzel.

That’s for the movie that came in at 106th top-grossing. Imagine the cultural impact of No. 10, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which sold twice as many tickets as “Frozen” (adjusted for inflation). Again, ticket sales are not an accurate or complete measure of cultural impact, but it’s a worthwhile glimpse. To put this further in perspective, Disney was not a major studio in the 30’s. In fact, they were considered an independent studio, and from that position they released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first feature-length, full-color animated film. That’s the modern-day equivalent of making James Cameron’s “Avatar” with just a handycam, 3-D glasses and a toaster.

Despite Disney’s classics having historically dominated the record in the domestic box office, modern releases do not chart that high, and with good reason. In the beginning, Disney practically invented the genre of child-oriented animated movies, and as a result, had the market in their pocket for years. Nowadays, however, competition is fierce, with numerous major studios and independent animators releasing an endless slew of child-targeted animated films. It’s hard, even for a giant like Disney, to break through the noise of a fragmented media landscape.

Despite this acknowledgment, the numbers make me inclined to declare “old Disney” the victor. The data help put into perspective how many people flocked to theaters to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Lion King.” In fact, modern media is so competitive that a hit of that caliber might be a practical impossibility, since it’s hard not to get buried in the noise. Maybe what we really all feel nostalgic for is a single movie-maker who would, once a year, produce a reliable piece of animation which we could all keep in our collective imaginarium.