On a video earnings call last month, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sat on his couch, arms crossed, and casually mentioned that, oh, by the way, among the company’s many ambitions, he also wants to dethrone Disney from its spot as the longtime global leader in animation.
“We’re very fired up about catching them in family animation,” Hastings said. “Maybe eventually passing them. We’ll see.”
Netflix announced today its biggest move yet toward that dream of beating Disney at what it does best. The company acquired the rights to all 22 books of Redwall, the award-winning children’s fantasy series by English writer Brian Jacques about the adventures of a group of anthropomorphic animals. Netflix will produce an animated film based on the first book of the series, as well a develop an “event series” (also animated) about the character Martin the Warrior, a heroic mouse.
Published from 1986 until Jacques’ death in 2011, Redwall sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages, enthralling multiple generations of children around the world. It has long topped wishlists to be adapted into a big-budget Hollywood film or TV series, and now Netflix will get a crack at it.
The news comes as Netflix rapidly builds out its still nascent animation unit to cut into Disney’s lead in the space. It now plans to release six animated movies per year—far more than the two that Disney’s main animation studios (Pixar and Walt Disney Animation) put out each year.
For a company primarily in the business of growing global subscriptions, animation helps make families more loyal customers. One way to increase the odds households not only turn into Netflix households, but also stay that way, is to offer content that appeals to all members of that household—especially as subscription prices rise. Netflix has said its data show children watch the same animated movies repeatedly.
The genre also represents a chance to undermine Disney’s streaming growth around the world. Disney has been producing animated films since the 1930s and has remained a juggernaut in the space, routinely topping the box office with films like Frozen, and Toy Story. In 2019, two of the three highest-grossing films in the world, Frozen II and the Lion King remake, were Disney animated films. While other challengers have emerged in the last few decades, no other studio has made a serious dent in Disney’s animation dominance. Disney bought the one studio that came close—Pixar.
So developing a robust animation slate could help Netflix fend off Disney’s streaming challenge. To some extent, it could be a mere show of force—one last hill for Netflix to conquer after it’s proven capable of succeeding virtually everywhere else.
In addition to making more animated originals, Netflix is bolstering its licensed slate of animated titles. Last year, it acquired the international rights to 21 films from Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. (In the US, Studio Ghibli’s catalog is available on HBO Max.) Netflix is developing a number of animated co-productions with other studios too, including the stop-motion horror-comedy Wendell and Wild, co-written by and starring Jordan Peele.
Netflix acknowledges dethroning Disney won’t happen overnight, if ever. “That’s going to take a while,” Hastings told the Hollywood Reporter. “I mean, they are really good at it.” But that the company intends for it to happen at all is another clear sign of its limitless ambition.
Meanwhile, yesterday Disney shuttered Blue Sky Studios, the animation studio that made the Ice Age and Rio film series, and one of the last vestiges of its 2019 acquisition of Fox’s entertainment empire. Citing the financial squeeze brought on by the pandemic, Disney no longer has the desire (or means) to operate a third animation division. According to Deadline, Disney will absorb Blue Sky’s remaining intellectual property (and help place some of its employees at the company’s other studios)—perhaps to prevent Netflix from doing so.