Audiences for family films are getting choosier about their spending. A familiar brand or franchise doesn’t automatically mean success, but with good execution, it sure doesn’t hurt.
That’s one takeaway from the ups and downs of 2023 in family-targeted entertainment, including new advances (and challenges) with in-home streaming options. New platforms emerged, and new players made a big splash, hoping to prove their value to families.
Here are last year’s top seven biggest hits and misses in family entertainment.
Hit: ‘Super Mario Bros’ and ‘Wonka’ Launch Hit Film Franchises
Two films showed how to smartly relaunch beloved franchises on the big screen, as both The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Wonka became blockbuster hits.
At first glance, critics of the Illumination-Nintendo animated video-game flick have a point: is there anything surprising here? Do we really need Chris Pratt as every leading man? But what that misses is how lovingly animators translated the Mario characters (i.e. Princess Peach is still female) and worlds to a feature film, with iconic music cues and gameplay part of the action.
The producers of Paddington performed a similar feat with adventure/period drama/musical Wonka, which has dozens of references to the Gene Wilder classic, including two iconic songs.
It balances childlike wonder, fun musical numbers, and emotional depth in a compelling way, with an overdone fat-shaming bit being its only misstep. Sequels to both films are moving ahead.
Miss: Disney Strikes Out Several Times, in Theaters and Streaming
Despite rehiring former CEO Bob Iger in late 2022, Disney’s troubles accelerated and revealed that, in fact, Iger has played a role in them.
Two Marvel films, including an Ant-Man sequel and female-centric The Marvels, far underperformed expectations. So did theme-park-ride-inspired Haunted Mansion and animated musical Wish, the latter tied to a larger #Disney100 campaign.
Subscribers dumped streamer Disney+ at a record-high rate, and it’s no wonder. Much-hyped spy thriller Secret Invasion had no thematic weight or depth, despite stars like Samuel L. Jackson and Martin Freeman.
While the streamer’s biggest draw continues to be animated hit Bluey, other entries like a Muppets spin-off and Goosebumps never made a blip.
Hit: Trio of Sequels Delight Audiences
Sony Animation’s high-flying, tween-targeted Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse sequel revealed the friendly neighborhood webbed hero will continue his reign as the top superhero, especially with bold takes like this one.
The visuals are out-of-this-world eye-popping, but what makes it truly great are meaningful relationships (including father-son dynamics) that ring true to life.
Meanwhile, sequels Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (on Paramount+) and Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget (on Netflix) may have followed tried-and-true formulas, but families found plenty of laughs and thrills all the same.
Miss: The Incredible Shrinking Value of Streaming Services
It started in fall 2022, when Max made headlines by removing 220 episodes of classic Sesame Street—particularly strange because the streamer had spent funds to remaster these “lost” episodes only a year prior.
But now those millions were seen as a lucrative tax write-off, which means the episodes had to remain vaulted to realize that financial benefit.
David Zaslav, embattled head of Warner Bros. Discovery, has ushered in an era where even highly acclaimed and watched titles will disappear from streaming without notice. He’s also gutted film channel TCM and removed most classics from the Max app while raising prices.
Disney followed his strategy to, shall we say, adjust its financial books, removing beloved novel adaptation The Mysterious Benedict Society, Catholic-themed drama film Clouds, behind-the-scenes docuseries Prop Culture, and 140 other titles last year.
At the same time, Disney+ increased its no-ads price to $13.99 per month, double the $6.99 cost in 2019. Many families have left.
Hit: True Inspirational Stories Fly High, Though Some Play Loose with Facts
As mid-budget films geared to adults have become a rarity, faith-driven filmmakers have sought to fill the void with compelling true-life dramas. This year, a handful of entries that depict dramatic events and remarkable life stories stand out.
Released Easter weekend globally on Prime Video, On A Wing And A Prayer depicts the death of a pilot mid-flight and his passenger with little flying experience (Dennis Quaid) who has to safely land his family on-board.
Another Quaid feature, The Hill, tells the story of how a boy with a genetic defect rose up from being the son of a preacher to a Major League Baseball star. And A Million Miles Away recounts how a Latino man of faith persisted to join the ranks of NASA.
A couple of biopics offered hope and inspiration, but veered a bit far from the factual events.
Released on Hulu, Flamin’ Hot purported to tell the origin story of a popular spicy Cheetos blend, but reporting casts doubt on key scenes.
With high-caliber stars Kelsey Grammer and Jonathan Roumie, Jesus Revolution made waves at the box office. Yet many, like Peter Chattaway noted it “obscures the messiness of the Christian hippie movement.”
Miss: Content Ratings Creep Continues, Parental Vigilance Required
Several shows either explicitly or indirectly marketed to kids and teens had a concerning amount of content issues. A dark reboot of Scooby-Doo, animated series Velma on Max featured nudity, explicit violence, and vulgarity — similar content to HBO’s Euphoria, also on Max and marketed heavily to teens on TikTok.
Netflix used big stars to draw teens and kids to questionable content including Adam Sandler in Murder Mystery 2 (a comedy with coarse language), Arnold Schwarzenegger series FUBAR (even the title is an obscene acronym), and animated PG sci-fi flick Nimona with Riz Ahmed and RuPaul featuring a gender-fluid lead who finds purpose in “tormenting others.”
Hit: Major New Players Emerge in Faith-and-Family Entertainment
The rise of Angel Studios—with its pioneering use of crowdfunding and crowdsourced creative decisions—turned heads in Hollywood, including strong results for sci-fi thriller The Shift and Old Testament biblical drama His Only Son.
Then the studio had summer’s biggest surprise hit.
While light on faith references, Sound of Freedom starring Jim Caviezel nonetheless used a base of conservative Christian support to first conquer July 4th at the box office. Then a wide audience discovered the story of sex trafficking rescue, propelling it to #10 for all of 2023.
In other news, Great American Family merged with Pure Flix, aiming to move beyond Hallmark romance to a wide-appeal family network.
The Daily Wire unveiled its family streamer, Bentkey, producing a few shows, notably a delightful Mister Rogers update.
It adds up to more faith-and-family offerings ahead, starting with Kingdom Story’s Ordinary Angels in February, Angel Studios' saint biopic Cabrini in March, and several other TV and film projects.
Image: Adobe Stock
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.