'Dumbo' kicks off robust slate of Disney live-action remakes ahead of Disney+ launch

Key Points
  • "Dumbo" is tracking toward a $50 million to $60 million opening weekend box office haul.
  • Disney has made more than $4.85 billion worldwide since 2010 from live-action remakes of its classic animated features.
  • Three more of these films arrive later this year: "Aladdin" in May, "The Lion King" in July and "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" in October.
Disney's new film: Dumbo
Source: Disney

"Don't just fly. Soar," Timothy Q. Mouse tells an apprehensive Dumbo in Disney's 1941 animated classic of the same name.

The live-action remake of the film, due out March 29, seeks to fulfill that sentiment, as it tracks toward a $50 million to $60 million opening weekend. Directed by Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice"), "Dumbo" retells the classic tale of the baby elephant with oversized ears.

"'Dumbo's tracking really well," said Shawn Robbins, a senior analyst at BoxOffice. "I think Tim Burton's fan base is going to add a lot to the appeal that is already there. It's a multigenerational family movie. A lot of parents grew up with the original, and this will introduce today's generation of kids to that story."

"Dumbo" is one of four live-action remakes coming to the big screen from Disney this year. The film is part of a new chapter for Disney, which appears to be bolstering its arsenal of films ahead of the launch of its online streaming service Disney+.

Notably, CEO Bob Iger has said that "Captain Marvel" would be the first film that would not be licensed to any other streaming services. That means "Dumbo" and every other Disney movie that hits theaters from now on will likely follow suit.

The new film follows circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) as he enlists the help of Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children to care for the newborn Dumbo. However, when they discover that Dumbo can fly, they attract the interest of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an eccentric entrepreneur.

Vandevere recruits Dumbo to be part of his entertainment venture, Dreamland, alongside aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). The cast soon discovers that Dreamland is full of dark secrets.

Robbins said "Dumbo" is the last true family film to hit theaters until "Detective Pikachu" arrives in May.

Earlier this year, "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part," "How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World" and "Wonder Park" were released. While "Lego 2" and "Wonder Park" struggled to draw audiences, "Hidden World" was able to eke out a solid theatrical run, earning $467.3 million worldwide.

Comparatively, "Lego 2" hauled in $171 million globally, less than half of what the original earned, and "Wonder Park," which was released last week, brought in only $21 million globally.

Even if "Dumbo" pulls in an opening weekend haul on the low end of estimates, it would still be on track to surpass "A Wrinkle in Time," Disney's family-friendly film released during the same period as "Dumbo" last year, Robbins said. "Wrinkle" earned $33 million in its opening weekend and grossed $132 million worldwide by the end of its theatrical run.

Turning the narrative on its head

Fans of "Dumbo" will notice that the new film's plot strays a bit from the original feature. As Disney has adapted these classic animated films into live-action features, it has not been uncommon for them to update the script to reflect modern storytelling and to expand the scope of the world in which the film is set. Not to mention the original "Dumbo" was only 63 minutes long, while the new iteration clocks in at over two hours.

In some cases, Disney has even turned the narrative on its head, as was the case with 2014's "Maleficent."

Disney's ticket sales have been bolstered by this series of live-action remakes. In the last decade, the company has released six — "Alice in Wonderland," "Maleficent," "Cinderella," "The Jungle Book," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass."

Disney made more than $4.85 billion worldwide from these releases, according to ComScore data.

This success has led Disney to produce four live-action films due for release this year. "Dumbo" will be the first, in March, followed by "Aladdin" in May, "The Lion King" in July and "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" in October.

The sequel to "Maleficent" was initially slated for release in 2020, but was moved to this year. Some analysts have speculated that by moving the film release earlier, Disney would be able to add "Maleficent 2" to its upcoming streaming service Disney+ once its theatrical run is completed.

"I have a theory, and it may or may not be right, but I think [Disney] is loading up the schedule this year to — and this is pure speculation — in anticipation of the launch of the Disney streaming channel so that they will have a significant source of product when they are coming into it next year," Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst, said in an interview. "That may be the reason behind it. It seems to make the most sense."

Disney+ is due to be released before the end of 2019. With theatrical runs typically lasting around 90 days, "Maleficent 2" could find a home on the platform by January 2020, bolstering Disney's catalog of films available to be added to the service.

"There's no question it would be a good move," Robbins said.

Disney has been tight-lipped about its new streaming service, revealing few details about when movies and television shows will be brought to the platform. Iger has said that the company will go into its vault to bring classic animated films to the service.

With the release date of "Maleficent 2" moved, "Mulan" is currently the only Disney live-action remake with a release date in 2020. However, that doesn't mean Disney doesn't have plans for more of these films.

The company currently has more than a dozen titles in the works — some sequels, some straight-up remakes and some from the perspective of another character.

  • "Chernabog"
  • "Cruella"
  • "Genie"
  • "Hunchback of Notre Dame"
  • "James and the Giant Peach"
  • "Lady and the Tramp"
  • "Lilo and Stitch"
  • "Peter Pan"
  • "Pinocchio"
  • "Prince Charming"
  • "Rose Red"
  • "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
  • "The Jungle Book 2"
  • "The Little Mermaid"
  • "The Sword in the Stone"
  • "Tink"

Disclosure: NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, owns Dreamworks and distributed "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World."