Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 21.
To everybody who regularly goes into purple-faced conniptions every time someone mentions shopping on Thanksgiving, a question: you know movie theaters are always open on that night, right?
Dating back to the release of Rocky IV in 1985 -- which made $31.7 million over that five-day weekend and still ranks as the 18th-best Thanksgiving opening of all time -- studios have designated Thanksgiving weekend as a mini blockbuster season. Sony regularly times the releases of its James Bond films to get some of that sweet post-Thanksgiving dinner money. Warner Brothers used Thanksgiving to its advantage during November openings of Harry Potter films. Summit and Lions Gate Films both saw opportunity in Thanksgiving when releasing Hunger Games and Twilight films around Thanksgiving.
However, there's one studio that's absolutely cornered the market on Thanksgiving weekend releases: Disney. Since 1986, Disney and its subsidiary studios (Hollywood, Touchstone, Pixar, etc.) have released 20 films on Thanksgiving weekend. The best among them read like a murderer's row: Aladdin, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Enchanted, A Bug's Life and Frozen. This year, Moana gets the call. It's a brilliant scheme: launch a family friendly film by Thanksgiving, have the merchandise in stores in time for Christmas.
It's the reason that November releases of any sort are considered the start of the holiday movie season. For five of the last ten holiday seasons, the biggest movie of Thanksgiving ended up being the biggest movie of the season overall. In each case, those films -- Twilight (2008), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010), Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011), Skyfall (2012) and Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) -- produced 8% to 16% of the total box-office take for the entire season.
Most surprisingly, there isn't one superhero movie in that mix (the Thor movies haven't done so well and Doctor Strange's fate is still in question) and there's only one film -- Catching Fire -- that ended up being the highest-grossing movie of the year.
We were originally going to go over the best Thanksgiving openings of all time, but that became an ad for Disney pretty quickly. Instead, we're going to take a look at the 10 films that have inspired Thanksgiving families, Black Friday shoppers and Thanksgiving weekend guests to part with their money during that five-day span. Call Thanksgiving shopping and Black Friday doorbusters crassly commercial if you'd like, but folks were lining up for these films long before Black Friday ascended to the No. 1 shopping day of the year back in 2003, according to market research firm ShopperTrak:
Released: November 24, 2010
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $68.7 million
So began Walt Disney Animation Studios's great comeback of the 2010s. After its late-'80s and '90s golden age ended with Tarzan in 1999, Disney Animation watched Pixar's computer-animated films run away with the box-office receipts while its cell-shaded offerings floundered in mediocrity. While one could argue that Disney Animation's potential was apparent as early as 2008's Bolt, the qualities that eventually broke through with Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia were first featured here. With a budget of $260 million, Tangled is still the most expensive animated feature the studio has ever made. However, by turning historically helpless Rapunzel into a full-on hero, Disney Animation and its writers made it clear that any further princesses would be less like Ariel and more like Mulan.
Released: November 17, 2000
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $73.5 million
Carrey would star in a much better Christmas movie at the end of the decade when he did his take on A Christmas Carol, but at this stage he was best used as Ace Ventura in a green fur suit. He'd just completed a four-year run in which The Cable Guy, The Truman Show and Man On The Moon showed off a little bit of range for an actor once restricted to rubber-faced comedy.
It just didn't carry over. Instead, audiences got the Carrey of Me, Myself and Irene who never met a butt-biting gag or fart joke he didn't like and never saw a facial expression he couldn't over-exaggerate. This was gold for kids - who got a holiday package wrapped in Carrey's best playground humor - but it's a tough watch for parents either A) more accustomed to the subtleties of the 1966 animated television special of the same name or B) worn down by Ventura, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Liar Liar and other first-wave Carrey material he's spent more than a decade actively disassociating from.
Released: November 19, 2010
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $74.99 million
The first of J.K. Rowlings's Harry Potter books was released in 1997, the last just three years before the last movie. Overall, this series did what few others could: grow right along with its readers. It grew darker and more complex with time but only drove home the urgency of Harry, Ron and Hermione's task. The last book and final two films in this series are bleak, but the kids who stood on line at Barnes & Noble and Borders for those first books were more than equipped to handle it.
Released: November 20, 2015
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $75.99 million
This angstier teen take on The Running Man, Battle Royale and Series 6 always seemed a little lightweight and somewhat cheap. We realize that the post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare thing what everyone's doing right now, but when your only way to resolve the plot is to take the darkness darker and kill a pen full of kids, well, there's a reason that that the final film in the series was also the lowest-grossing.
Released: November 24, 1999
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $80.1 million
That's right, nerds: when you steal kids' toys from yard sales and gouge adults for a piece of their childhood, you bring the wrath of the whole toy world down on your head. Meanwhile, the toys of Toy Story keep hinting at one of the darker truths of this whole series -- that children's favorite toys are eventually outgrown, stored and/or discarded. We're not sure if the Toy Story series is one of the most beloved in modern cinema or, not so secretly, one of the darkest and most melancholy.
Released: November 18, 2005
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $81.3 million
Ah, Quidditch, the Triwizard Tournament, minimal Voldemort -- these were the last of the good ol' days at Hogwarts. Not surprisingly, this was also the last of the pre-September 11 Harry Potter books written. That it all takes a distinctly darker turn from this point onward comes as a surprise to no one. This is just about the end of the innocence for this series, as the challenges for the students at Hogwarts only get more grave from here on out.
Released: November 16, 2001
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $82.4 million
Sure, it got a name change from "The Philosopher's Stone" just to dumb things down a bit, but it's definitely worth checking in on this film again. From director Chris Columbus's trademark dark childhood melancholy and danger that imbued The Goonies, Home Alone, Adventures In Babysitting and Gremlins to the youth of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, there's a lot to take in. Most incredibly, however, there's a glorious mix of childlike wonder and adult dread (perhaps no better personified than in the story of Harry's mother) that hooked a generation almost immediately.
Released: November 21, 2014
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $82.7 million
We're just going to note, again, that the second half of this finale fares far worse than the first. There's a reason for that: by dividing the source material into this film's politically tense plot and the second's more action-oriented narrative, Lionsgate did a fine job of weakening both films. This film was rich with exposition and political subtext but came to signify almost nothing. The second allowed violence and lots of human suffering to stand on its own, but separated it almost completely from the context of the prior film. They're frustrating to watch in tandem, but you're asking a lot of an audience to start this finale with a film that plays out like a book.
Released: November 27, 2013
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $93.6 million
We'd drop a clip of Let It Go in here, but there are households in this country where that song still echoes through the halls. Now that this film has put Disney firmly in the driver's seat of its relationship with Pixar and has inserted Queen Elsa into everything from Disney's ABC show Once Upon A Time to a Broadway production it basically already wrote the songbook for, we're going to be living with the legacy for a while. We're also going to be enduring the pop-culture debate of a young generation's lifetime: is Elsa the hero of this film, or is her sister Anna more heroic for working through her sister's introversion and anger while cleaning up her mess?
Released: November 22, 2013
Five-day Thanksgiving weekend gross: $109.9 million
It's rare that the star of a franchise like this outgrows the role by the second film, but a big reason for the second film's tremendous success was Jennifer Lawrence eclipsing Katniss Everdeen. She's already slain her lead role in Winter's Bone three years earlier and received her first nomination for it. By the time this film came around, she'd not only won for Best Actress in Silver Linings Playbook, but was also awaiting the release of the film that would garner her third of four Oscar nominations -- American Hustle. Catching Fire was the biggest film of 2013, and it wasn't even the best work Lawrence would put on screen that year.