Thanksgiving-themed movies aren’t nearly as common or as popular as Christmas movies, but they can still be major box office draws, especially since Thanksgiving weekend is usually a big one for movie theaters. Traditionally kicking off the holiday movie season, Thanksgiving and all the joys it brings including the Macy’s Day Parade, are a big part of pre-Christmas celebrations. But as numbers report, the box office usually lacks that sort of charm. Whereas Christmas has been a more commercially successful holiday for movies through a broader appeal that captures attention worldwide, Thanksgiving as a family holiday doesn’t offer much diversity in storytelling.
Not to mention, these traditions for Turkey Day may not be as widely recognized internationally, so filmmakers have no reason to create an appeal. Yet with all this understanding, some studios still attempt to bring the family together with their films — even if they aren’t the best. When we mean, “best,” we really mean it. So, what’s the highest-grossing Thanksgiving movie of all time? We are very sorry to report that, in raw numbers, it’s 2011’s Jack and Jill.
If you didn’t know Jack and Jill was a Thanksgiving movie because you’ve never seen it, count yourself as one of the lucky ones. According to Box Office Mojo — the source of all the theatrical grosses we’ll be talking about — this “comedy” from director Dennis Dugan grossed about $74 million domestically and just under $150 million worldwide. The film, in which Adam Sandler plays both sides of a brother-sister set of twins, takes place primarily over Thanksgiving weekend when the brashly obnoxious Jill visits successful advertising exec Jack in L.A. and wreaks havoc on his life while Al Pacino, playing himself, unsuccessfully attempts to woo her. Despite sweeping the Razzies and boasting a dismal 3% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was a box office success, bringing in nearly double its $79 million budget.
Fortunately, when adjusted for inflation, Jack and Jill loses its top spot to a much better film which coincidentally also stars Al Pacino: 1992’s Scent of a Woman. The film, directed by Martin Brest, follows a young Chris O’Donnell, whose character is hired to watch over an irascible, blind, alcoholic Army veteran over Thanksgiving weekend, though, oddly, it was released on December 23. Scent of a Woman — which also earned Pacino a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor — was as widely acclaimed as Jack and Jill was panned, with critics praising the script as well as both O’Donnell’s and Pacino’s performances. It brought in just over $63 million domestically and $134 million worldwide on a budget of about $31 million. Adjusted for 2023 dollars though, that’s a box office gross of over $290.8 million, compared to Jack and Jill‘s inflation-adjusted gross of just over $204 million.
In third place is the most overtly Thanksgiving-themed movie of the bunch, a bizarre and not particularly good 2013 animated comedy called Free Birds. Helmed by Jimmy Hayward, whose only other directorial credits to date are 2008’s Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! and 2010’s Jonah Hex, the film stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson as a pair of turkeys who steal a time machine to travel back to 1621 with a plan to prevent turkeys from becoming the dish of choice at the first Thanksgiving. Once there, they’re saved from the pilgrims by a flock — errr, tribe — of Native American turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (David Keith) and his daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler). (I realize that if you’ve never seen this movie, it sounds like a fever dream, but I promise you it’s real — you can stream it on Starz.) This strange creation brought in about $55.8 million at the domestic box office and a little over $110 million worldwide on its surprisingly large budget of $55 million. Adjusted for inflation, Free Bird‘s total gross comes to about $145.8 million.
Following Free Birds is Don’t Say a Word, an unmemorable 2001 thriller by Gary Fleder starring Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, and Sean Bean. Thanksgiving is merely the backdrop to this convoluted film, which involves a gem heist, the requisite thieves double-crossing each other, a kidnapping, and Douglas’s child psychiatrist somehow swept up in the midst of everything. Don’t Say a Word made $55 million domestically and $100 million worldwide on a $50 million budget, with an inflation-adjusted gross of about $174 million.
However, the best Thanksgiving movie ever made, John Hughes‘ Planes, Trains and Automobiles starring Steve Martin and John Candy, comes in fifth, having grossed $49.5 million at the domestic box office in 1987, which adjusts to a respectable $132 million in today’s money. It didn’t receive a wide international release, but it was released in the UK, where it topped the weekend box office and brought in about £2 million — or about $3.6 million. Considering that it was made for a mere $15 million and that its box office returns have been bolstered by strong home video sales, it has turned an excellent profit over the last 36 years.
With the possible exception of Scent of a Woman, which was well-reviewed in its day and continues to be appreciated by modern film buffs, Planes, Trains and Automobiles has the most enduring legacy of any Thanksgiving movie. The script, written by Hughes, skillfully balances comedy with sincerity; combined with the pitch-perfect casting of Martin and Candy, the film is genuinely delightful and eminently rewatchable and has become part of many families’ annual holiday traditions.
Rounding out the Top 10 is 1994’s Nobody’s Fool, a small, underrated dramedy starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis that, like Scent of a Woman, takes place over Thanksgiving but was inexplicably released on December 23 and went on to gross about $40 million. Followed by, 1993’s Son in Law starring Pauly Shore (remember Pauly Shore?), which again, takes place over Thanksgiving weekend yet was released in July, ultimately grossing $36.4 million. In 1986, Hannah and Her Sisters, a widely praised Woody Allen family comedy/drama with an ensemble cast that includes Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, and Carrie Fisher, grossed about $35.4 million.