Weird World, the latest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, underperformed at the box office, grossing just $800,000 in preview screenings ahead of its opening weekend. That’s not good for most blockbusters, let alone a big Disney Thanksgiving release. It’s too early to call this a flop and after a cynical promotional cycle, conversations about the story and characters have started to grow, but things don’t look pretty right now and I can’t help but feel it could have been easily different.
I hardly saw any marketing for Strange World, and it would probably have passed me by if my work didn’t include coverage of major animated releases. The title is fairly generic, its premise doesn’t evoke much imagination, and hardly any advertisements have been posted online to gauge interest. A few short teasers have popped up in my TikTok feed, but none of them do a particularly convincing job of selling exactly what they are talking about. Disney could have presented it as a cheeky homage to the classic adventure movie based on the story of how generations of a family learn to love each other, but instead it did nothing.
Better yet, instead of repeating the tedious routine of introducing its “first gay character” for the billionth time, Disney had a chance to build on the film’s queer narrative and defend it for a global audience, but instead it feels buried as part of a film that is almost embarrassing to advertise. Perhaps all those jokes about “the first gay characters” scared Disney away from mentioning it in marketing.
But Ethan Clayde’s homosexuality is not something that is instantaneous and you will miss him, like many other films of recent years, it is an integral part of his character. As a central motivation for his growth as a personality in the narrative, it is impossible to bypass it without creating a glaring omission. The cynic in me believes that Disney recognizes this, and thus knows that the international success of the film is canceled out as a result. Maybe spend a minimum of money on marketing, fearing that its potential is limited? I doubt it, but I still can’t avoid the possibility that this is a factor.
If Weird World fails financially — which is certainly possible with a budget estimated at $180 million, $20 million more than Spider-Man: Far From Home — will there be a meetings raised the issue of the presence of a gay character? Weird World can be doomed to failure out of fear of this weird character, and in turn, that character can be pointed to as a flaw, as a reason to revert to heteronormative stories that are seen as closer to the mainstream.
Even if it’s true, Disney hasn’t made any effort to normalize queer characters in movies, and given that it owns everything today, who else can really come in and make that same impact without getting lost in the noise? Theatrical releases are less restrained than TV releases and need to cross national borders to earn their money back among global audiences with diverse cultural backgrounds. Disney is forced to occasionally cut background kisses and tiny references to homosexuality, so the queer protagonist won’t fly.
This environment is also not without challenges when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation. Many of Disney’s own shows have been censored, toned down, or banned outright because they aren’t afraid to champion queer stories, often to the ire of fans wanting to see themselves on screen without compromise. Weird World is another casualty in a string of films forced to abide by outdated conventions just to survive, and that’s tiring for years.
Except he decides to come forward to tell us a strange teenage love story that young viewers deserve to see. But a lack of marketing and mediocre box office returns mean this groundbreaking move could be a tiny footnote never to be picked up again. This could have been the start of something, and still could be, and I won’t forget his failure the next time Disney is in the headlines for the debut of yet another gay character he doesn’t give a damn about.
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