Here's how 'Moana' became a big Thanksgiving weekend hit

The newest Disney animated film came in number one at the high-profile Thanksgiving weekend box office, far above such films as the World War II drama 'Allied' and the Warren Beatty movie 'Rules Don't Apply.'

'Moana' stars Rachel House (l.) and Auli'i Cravalho (r.).

The new Disney animated film “Moana” found the box office seas to be calm ones this past weekend, becoming a big hit while other films like the Warren Beatty drama “Rules Don’t Apply” experienced a more difficult time at the Thanksgiving box office.

“Moana,” which centers on a young Polynesian girl who takes to the water to try to save her people, came in first place at the Thanksgiving box office, grossing more than $81 million over five days after opening on Nov. 23.

The new tale set in the world of “Harry Potter,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” came in second place after having opened on Nov. 18. The movie starring Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston brought in about $65 million this past five-day weekend. 

Meanwhile, the Marvel superhero story “Doctor Strange,” which opened at the beginning of November, came in third, grossing more than $18 million. 

The new World War II drama “Allied,” which stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, came in fourth, taking in $18 million over the five days, while the alien film “Arrival,” which stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and opened earlier in November, placed fifth, grossing more than $15 million.

Movies that didn’t experience as much success this past weekend included the comedy sequel “Bad Santa 2,” which stars Billy Bob Thornton and came in seventh place this past weekend, and the film “Rules Don’t Apply,” which was the first movie directed by Warren Beatty in 18 years and featured the actor playing Howard Hughes. “Rules” took in only a bit more than $2 million.

Why did a film like “Moana” do so well at the Thanksgiving box office? 

Good reviews no doubt brought in many moviegoers. The story about Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and her companion, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), has so far brought in even better reviews than Disney box office juggernaut “Frozen,” which opened on Thanksgiving weekend as well in 2013. Monitor film critic Peter Rainer, for example, called “Moana” “one of the better Disney animated features to come along in a while.”

The film “has supercharged wit, eye-popping visuals featuring azure seas and glowing coral, spirited voice work from Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne Johnson as the rollicky tattooed semi-deity Maui, and a couple of sprightly songs co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of ‘Hamilton,’” Mr. Rainer writes. 

And Exhibitor Relations senior box office analyst Jeff Bock told USA Today never to count out the power of the Disney name, which Mr. Bock says has been backed up by quality with movies like this year’s “Zootopia.” “Their stuff is so good right now and connecting with audiences," he said. "The Disney animation brand is right up there with Pixar at this point.” 

Anthony D’Alessandro of Deadline pointed to the popularity of “Moana” star Mr. Johnson and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. “We cannot underestimate the social media power of Dwayne Johnson, who has close to 140M across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, as well as Tony-Award-winning 'Hamilton' star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Mr. D’Alessandro wrote. “If there was ever a time when Miranda was hitting a zeitgeist, it’s now.”

Why did other movies struggle to find as many moviegovers? For "Rules," for example, one challenge may be that "the pic is from another era in its erratic pacing," D'Alessandro wrote, and audiences may have been confused about who is the focus of the film. "For a semi-biopic about Hughes, it's a comedy that largely focuses on its younger, beautiful protagonists played by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich," he wrote.

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