‘Moana’ sails at the box office, but faces choppy waters navigating to ‘Frozen’s’ success

Moana doll from Hasbro
Rhiannon Teeter | CNBC

The opening weekend of Disney's "Moana" approached "Frozen's" success, but to mimic Anna'sand Elsa's success in the toy aisle, Moana will see some rough waters ahead.

The company's newest animated film has garnered more than $161.9 million domestically and more than $118.4 million internationally since its opening four weeks ago.

Earning an estimated $81.1 million for its Thanksgiving opening, the film, which features a female Pacific Islander, fell shy of the $93.6 million five-day opening that "Frozen" earned in 2013. "Moana" pulled in about $55.5 million from Friday through Sunday, helping Disney secure all top eight spots in the ranking of three-day Thanksgiving debuts of all time.

The film is the feather in the cap of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which has cemented itself as a powerhouse in the animation business over the past 10 years. However, a film's box office success may not always translate into toy sales.

Some movies translate into better toys than others, said Jim Silver, CEO of TTPM, an online toy review site, told CNBC.

Silver points to Pixar's "Finding Nemo" as a high-grossing box office film that did not deliver the same kind of sales when it came to toys. "Nemo" raked in just under $1 billion in 2003. By comparison, "Cars," which earned just over $462 million worldwide in 2006, had much greater success at retail.

Silver estimates that "Cars" toys sales were 25-times greater than the "Finding Nemo" toy line, despite the box office gap, and more than 50-times greater in the first two years after its release.

"'Cars' is a perfect play pattern," Silver said, noting that kids were able to mimic the events of the film easily with the raceable Matchbox cars sold at retail. "Whereas 'Finding Nemo,' the whole thing is underwater and how do you play with it? So you have to look at every movie and see how well it plays out."

Similar issues arose with films like "Ratatouille," "A Bugs Life" and "Monsters University," according to Silver. The films did well at the box office, but not quite as well at retail.

Costumes and roleplay items are key

Disney's 'Moana' totals $145M since opening
Disney's 'Moana' totals $145M since opening

While "Moana" toys have been selling well, Silver doesn't expect sales to reach the same level as Disney's "Frozen" or the toy lines from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To be sure, that's a high hurdle. A person familiar with Moana toy sales trends, said they have been tracking "higher than historical weekly builds," but wouldn't disclose specific figures.

Juli Lennett, U.S. toys industry analyst at The NPD Group, told CNBC that last week (Dec. 10) "Moana" toys broke into the top 100 properties currently selling toys at retail. She added that it is close to being within the top 50 and its sales are similar to that of Fur Real Friends, a popular brand.

That said, Moana toys will be challenged by the limited number of characters in the film, the lack of an iconic outfit and absence of a roleplay toy for its heroine ultimately means that the movie is more difficult for kids to reenact, said Silver.

"For 'Moana' you have the dolls, the boat, the demigod and the fish hook and that's about it," Silver said.

Contrasting the film to frozen, he added, "You play it out differently," he said of "Moana." "When you played 'Frozen' you played out Elsa and Anna and the relationship between two sisters, which a lot of girls can relate to, and you also played out the love story between Anna and Kristoff."

Roleplay battling toys, costumes and accessories have become increasingly popular in the toy industry as more and more kids enjoy acting out their favorite movies and television shows at home.

The trouble for "Moana" is her outfit isn't as iconic, Silver said.

"Kids love the [Disney princess] dresses. The dresses all play a significant part in the movie, it's not just that it's a dress you look at....The Cinderella dress was the special dress that was made for her by the Fairy Godmother that she danced with the prince and they fell in love. You look at the Belle dress. That was the dress she wore when she had her first dance with the Beast and again, they fell in love," he said.

Sleeping Beauty's dress and Elsa's ice dress also fit this pattern.

DVD release drives toy demand

It's still early days for Disney's latest flick. Sales of "Frozen" toys weren't particularly high following its box office run, but when the film was released on DVD, sales began to spike.

"Disney hadn't pushed it hard and licensees hadn't pushed it," Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, told CNBC. "They spent the next year catching up and trying to fill the demand."

TTPM's Silver attributed the increased demand directly to the DVD release, saying that because kids were able to watch the film over and over at home, they were more interested in replaying the events of the film with toys.

"It's in the minority share that kids will go to a movie more than once, because if you go to see a movie and you are a family of four, you're generally talking at least $40… you don't have the multiple viewings," Silver said.

Disney told CNBC that it is pleased with how its "Moana" products are preforming at retail following the film's release, with its Lego sets, figures and canoes best sellers. Additional toys will arrive in stores when the DVD is released, but Disney declined to comment further about its plans.

"To expect ['Moana'] to reach the heights of 'Frozen,' it would be really unusual to think that it could do that," Brochstein said.

"Frozen" was a perfect storm for Disney and is not easily repeated. It is rare for a film to have a solid box office run — the film garnered more than $1.28 billion at the global box office — and a high demand toy line. The company continues to sell products inspired from the film, including a Northern Lights Elsa Doll that debuted this year.

"Frozen was the exception to the rule," Brochstein said. "There isn't a formula. A lot of the big successes have come in at least some what under the radar."

(Update: This story was updated to reflect updated information about Moana toy sales.)