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A Recap of Disney100: We WISH It Were Better

2023 marked the 100th anniversary of The Walt Disney Company. What was supposed to be a year of magical celebration of the founders’ dream to entertain and inspire families through storytelling, innovation, and animation resembled a nightmare. Among controversies, accusations, and underperforming releases, there is plenty to unpack. While Disney might be too big of a corporation to be jeopardised by its 2023’s unsuccesses alone, the loom of another Dark Age is on the horizon: the studios’ popularity keeps plummeting and the perceived quality of their production does not satisfy the audience. I wonder, is it the end of an era for Disney?    

The Financial Insight

Founded in 1923 by brothers Walt and Roy O. Disney, the Disney brand has grown to worldwide fame throughout the past century and established itself as an integral part of millennials and gen Z’s childhoods in North America and Western Europe. The conglomerate operates mainly in the entertainment, broadcasting, merchandising, publishing, streaming media, and theme park resorts businesses. However, cinematic production remains what it is known for: notably, it owns the iconic Walt Disney Pictures and Animation Studios, Pixar, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm (known for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones’ franchises).

The Walt Disney Family of Companies. Source: Disney.

Once the pillars of the entertainment industry, it is unbelievable how drastically the public opinion of these studios’ movies has changed for the worse. The decline is quite evident when seen from a financial perspective. Between 2016 and 2022 The Walt Disney Company had been the irrefutable top dog in Hollywood, consistently leading the yearly global box office market share. Yet in 2023, it placed behind Universal, lagging behind $80 million in ticket sales revenue. It was also the first year since 2014, with the exception of 2020, that none of its theatrical releases grossed over $1 billion. Besides Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, all the major movies performed below expectations, and whether they would reach the break-even point to account for production and marketing expenses was shrouded in doubt.

To further quantify what a disaster it was, from February 2023 to January 2024, Disney’s Content sales/Licensing and Other revenues division incurred a striking $666 million operating loss, compared to the $20 million loss for the same period a year prior. While part of the loss can be attributed to lower TV/SVOD distribution results (decrease in licensing content to third parties, to favour distribution via Disney’s own streaming services administered by the Direct-to-Consumer division) and fewer people viewing movies in theatres in general, the poor reception to Disney’s films from the audience was a big contributor. This information is highlighted in the company’s quarterly reports. But why are moviegoers turning on Disney? In this article, I will discuss the reasons in relation to three 2023 releases: The Little Mermaid, The Marvels, and Wish.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid was released in the USA on May 26th, 2023. It is the live-action remake of the 1989’s animated homonym, at its time a visionary movie that kicked off the prosperous Disney Renaissance Era. Controversies sparked surrounding the adaptation before it even started filming. The casting of Afro-American actress Halle Bailey as the protagonist Ariel -who was previously depicted as a redhead mermaid with pale skin- divided the public opinion into those who applauded representation for the black community, and those who believed Disney should have stuck with the original material. The backlash was so heated that director Rob Marshall addressed it in a statement in which he defined everyone who disagreed with the casting as “small-minded”. He further implied that all concerns came from a racist sentiment. Racism should not be undermined nor dismissed: it definitely emerged within the #notmyariel controversy, which is not acceptable. It is, however, intellectually dishonest to attribute all criticism and the movie’s disappointing performance entirely to it. The Little Mermaid grossed $569 million worldwide, barely over the estimated break-even point. It is financially by far one of the least successful Disney’s live-action remakes. In a YouTube video that received 2.1 million views, the channel The Critical Drinker stated that the videography is dull, the CGI animals are uncanny, and, overall, there is no reason to watch the live-action instead of the animated version, as the minimal changes made to the plot do not add anything meaningful. These critiques seem to be shared among independent reviewers online and their audience. 

Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid (2023). Source: Walt Disney Pictures.

Viewers are simply getting tired of being fed the same content but repackaged. Commenters accuse Disney of desecrating its own properties through remakes, by altering them to conform to the woke agenda. “Woke” is a term for being aware and actively attentive to societal facts and issues. It is often used with a negative connotation to define progressivism that is extreme or unreasonable. The Snow White live-actions controversies perfectly encompass the woke accusations thrown at Disney. Similarly to The Little Mermaid, casting half-Colombian Rachel Zegler (in the USA, she is categorised as a Latina woman, despite her father being Polish) to play the previously white protagonist Snow White was heavily criticised. The tendency to race swap white characters in the name of diversity inclusion and representation has been popular in Hollywood lately. While depicting people of different heritages was and is still much needed in the film industry, executives went with the route of changing pre-existing characters instead of writing new ones. Many viewers have problems with it, such as the absence of creativity. But altering characters does not stop to race: the seven dwarfs in the original movie were replaced with “diverse companions”, as actor Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) expressed that the dwarfs enforced stereotypes towards little people like himself. Producer Terra Jolé disagreed with Dinklage’s comments, stating not every little person was against being casted as a dwarf, and that Disney only listened to Dinklage’s privileged opinion instead of the whole community. 

The Cast of Snow White (2025). Source: Daily Mail.

Returning to Rachel Zegler, during the movie promotion in the summer of 2023 the actress’ comments landed her in boiling water. She repeatedly admitted her dislike for the 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and particularly the character of Prince Charming, who saved Snow White by kissing her. She alluded to the fact that in the remake Snow White is “Not going to be dreaming about true love. She’s dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be”, enforcing the “girlboss who needs no man” narrative attributed to “radical woke feminism”. Disney is accused of being insincere and shallow when giving this kind of agency to its female characters. Being a strong woman does not exclude feeling love towards a romantic partner. Ultimately, the live-action of Snow White is currently being refilmed due to the public outburst Zegler has caused with her statements.     

The Marvels

The Marvels debuted in the USA on November 10th, 2023. It did horribly: lowest opening weekend for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film in terms of revenue and lowest-grossing MCU film in history. When it left the theatres, it had earned $206 million worldwide. It did not even cover the production cost of estimated $219.8 million. In comparison, at its peak in 2019, MCU’s Avengers: Endgame generated almost $2.8 billion, and is the second highest-grossing movie ever made. The difference is substantial and there are multiple factors to blame. 

The “superhero fatigue” refers to a general sentiment of rejection towards the superhero movies genre, due to the excessive number of releases and a repeated decline in quality. While Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was not affected thanks to its well-received prequels, The Marvels followed a bunch of mostly mediocre MCU movies and streamed series that the audience could not keep up with. Disney milked the franchise and the shared universe concept excessively. At the bare minimum, a person should have watched two series on Disney+ and two movies to know who the protagonists of The Marvels are. This continuity in viewing across platforms is becoming unrealistic to demand from the audience.

Superhero fatigue aside, The Marvels was disliked by those who watched it for including race swapping, gender swapping (male character to female character), “radical woke feminism”, but most importantly for being disappointing. On IMDb it obtained a 5.6/10 score from user reviews, below the site’s average of 7.0/10. When questioned about it, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger implicitly threw director Nia DaCosta under the bus, stating the executives’ mistake was not supervising her enough. Iger’s comment was condescending, but DaCosta was absolutely not qualified to handle a production as huge as The Marvels, and it showed. She had only directed two featured films prior to it, and online commenters suspect she was hired for being a black woman director rather than her qualifications. The whole The Marvels is a women-centric, representation movie, having a black woman direct it on paper was a good idea, but not at the expense of merit. Diversity hire only for the sake of appearance is a disservice to everyone, including DaCosta’s career, which will forever be plagued by The Marvels.  

Promotional Image for The Marvels (2023). Source: Marvel Studios.


Wish was advertised as the celebratory movie for Disney’s 100th anniversary. It was released in the USA during Thanksgiving week -a generally profitable period for family movies- on November 22nd, 2023. The expectation was to earn $45-50 million during the prolonged opening weekend. It ended up having a worse opening than The Marvels, at $31.6 million over five days. So far, it has recovered from being a total flop thanks to the international box offices, but it has still not reached the break-even point. 

Wish is regarded as a forgettable movie at best. Observer’s chief film critic Wendy Ide summarises it as “a grimly cynical marketing exercise wrapped in the sparkly cloak of an escapist animated fairytale”. It could be described as the copy-paste of every Disney’s trope minus the love story and the “evil for the sake of being evil” antagonist, that do not fit in its current woke narratives. It is perhaps the epitome of what causes The Walt Disney Company’s current mediocre storytelling: the lack of daring. Remember how innovation was one of the most important values to Walt and Roy O. Disney, who built the company by creating something that had never been seen before. Nowadays, Disney seems afraid to take risks, which reflects in its movies. Especially concerning animated features, in the past two years the competition brought widely praised films, which explored new techniques and themes while honouring the traditional animation’s legacy. In comparison, Wish is a celebration of the past, but certainly not the future of the industry.


Promotional Image for Wish (2023). Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Further Controversies

Disney was surpassed in the fields it is known for because it has been staying anchored to what is safe, and has been prioritising appearance and quantity over quality. As 2023 demonstrated, it is not sustainable for it to be stale nor ignore customers’ concerns any longer. CEO Bob Iger was pressured into acknowledging such in a statement, saying Disney’s employees have lost sight by prioritising messaging over storytelling. I personally do not think Disney should stop putting an effort towards “messaging” such as promoting diversity in its movies and hiring. Instead, it should correct the way it has been doing it. Yet storytelling has definitely been neglected and hopefully improvement is on its way. Only time will tell if the world will see Disney200.

Meanwhile, I want to end this with some 2023 controversies that did not make the cut in the main body of the article. Quoting:

There’s a level of expectation that they have, that is just not realistic”, Bob Iger in reference to the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America’s strikes for minimum payment rates and redefining residuals for actors, that had previously been reduced.   

I wouldn't hire him [Jonathan Majors]. He was on his way to being big, but I can't have him front a movie now, undisclosed producer regarding Jonathan Majors, who was fired from Marvel Studios after being found guilty of assault and harassment. Majors played Kang the Conqueror, the main villain of the current MCU phase. 

The notion that Disney is in any way sexualizing children, quite frankly, is preposterous and inaccurate”, Bob Iger responding to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who revoked taxation privileges from Disney for criticising Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.



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