Disney films are about to undergo a major change following one of the entertainment giant’s recent films that was initially a box office disaster.
Walt Disney released his first animated feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in December 1937. As Walt’s was the first of its kind, and because most of his projects up to that time had been animated shorts, there was nothing to which Snow White could be compared. For this reason–and many others–Disney set the standard in family entertainment from the very beginning.
Decades later, the Disney empire has grown to encompass multiple IPs and brands, including Marvel, Star Wars/Lucasfilm, National Geographic, and PIXAR–each an empire in its own right under the umbrella of the Disney name. But though they are separate entities within the Disney Company, they sometimes face similar challenges.
Disney Faces Back-to-Back-to-Back-to-Back Box Office Bombs
Such is the case of late with Disney and PIXAR. Disney has released a barrage of poorly-performing films–eight of them, to be exact. It’s perhaps the longest stint of box office bombs the studio has seen in recent decades. Some say it’s because the films include a woke agenda or woke ideologies, and therefore, the usual fan base has taken a sabbatical from the House of Mouse. Some name other culprits as the ones responsible for the demise of Disney’s films lately.
PIXAR has not been immune to those challenges. Like Disney, PIXAR is facing a season of less-than-optimally-performing releases–a season that began with its March 2020 release of Onward. The film was the last to enjoy a theatrical release before the heightened months of the pandemic, but the film was released at a time when concerns were already growing about the spread of disease, likely costing PIXAR potential successes with Onward.
PIXAR’s Continued Nightmare
The pandemic meant fewer fans were stepping into theaters–and everyone was streaming their favorites on Disney+. As such, subsequent films from the PIXAR powerhouse weren’t granted a box office release, beginning with the December 2020 Disney+ debut of Soul. Three months later, PIXAR’s Luca, which had originally been set for a June 2021 theatrical premiere, debuted on the streamer the same day Disney announced the cancellation of the film’s theatrical debut in response to continued concerns related to the pandemic.
Turning Red and Lightyear debuted in March 2022 and June 2022, respectively, and both were box office nightmares for PIXAR. Turning Red had been promised to fans as the return of PIXAR’s box office debuts, but in January 2022, as COVID cases due to the new omicron variant began to rise, Disney pulled the plug and opted for the direct-to-streaming route yet again. Turning Red was a flop for PIXAR, and part of it was likely due to what some fans referred to as “a progressive cult of ideas.”
In June, however, Lightyear was PIXAR’s first film to enjoy a theatrical release in more than two years. But it was a travesty. While some of Turning Red‘s failures could be attributed to its streaming-only release, Lightyear hadn’t faced the same scenario.
The film, which serves as an origin story about the astronaut that inspired the Buzz Lightyear action figure in Toy Story, had been controversial long before its release. There was confusion among fans as to why PIXAR had chosen Chris Evans over Tim Allen to voice the titular character, and months before its release, there was news that the film would include a scene in which a lesbian couple kiss. Though there was backlash over the news, PIXAR doubled down, saying it would not be removing any scenes from the film.
It was subsequently banned in multiple countries around the globe, and in the U.S., it reportedly fared poorly because of its woke ideology and progressive agenda.
“Elemental” to the Rescue?
Then, 364 days after the Lightyear fiasco began, PIXAR’s Elemental achieved the title of the worst PIXAR film opening in modern history. The film was forecast to flop, and it did. Shortly after its debut, the film became but an afterthought.
But then, weeks after its theatrical premiere, Elemental did something crazy. And surprising. It suddenly rose in fame at the box office, exploding in popularity–albeit a delayed explosion. Since its June 2023 debut, the film has surpassed Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (2023), and it will soon surpass Disney’s Encanto (2021) as the most popular post-pandemic Disney film.
As of the time of this post, Elemental has made more than $500 million at the box office, landing it in the #9 spot on the list of the year’s top-grossing films. Perhaps more importantly, the film’s success story has led PIXAR to go back to the proverbial drawing board.
PIXAR Gets Back to Its Base
In an interview with The New York Times, PIXAR’s Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter acknowledged the animation studio’s need for a shift back toward the themes that have resonated with its audiences over the years, and he said that PIXAR’s films are about to undergo a major change.
Pete Docter has been with PIXAR from the beginning and has directed some of the studio’s biggest hits like Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out before taking over as PIXAR’s chief in 2018 after John Lasseter left the studio.
Docter said that PIXAR’s classic stories like Toy Story are often anchored on “ideas that we all carried around as kids.” That focus shifted in films like Elemental, and now, PIXAR’s execs feel that the studio must take a closer look at the stories it’s creating and “double down on what allowed [them] to speak to audiences” in the first place.
“I always felt that Elemental would speak to a lot of people, and I’m so happy it has,” Docter said. “But we have also taken another look at the projects we’re working on now. What are the kinds of films we want to be making? I really think I want to double down on what allowed us to speak to audiences, to begin with.”
“I hope we can continue to be able to have budgets that allow our artists to do the best work of their lives,” Docter added, saying that overall, Hollywood will need to adjust its business models to account for changes brought about by the streaming era.
“There has been an overall shift in viewing habits as a result of the pandemic, but it’s also specific to Disney+,” Docter explained. “We’ve told people, ‘Hey, all of this is going to be available to you on Disney+!’”
According to The Times, “Docter also indicated that PIXAR had perhaps drifted too far from its storytelling roots.”
It will be exciting to see how PIXAR embraces its beginnings yet again–and even more thrilling to see the films that come because of that embrace.