The last theatrical release by Pixar Animation Studios was 2020’s elf road trip film, Onward. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The COVID-19 pandemic ramped up and closed theaters all over the world. Chains like AMC reduced capacity before shutting down completely, thus hurting the box-office gross for Onward. Up to that point, the lowest-grossing Pixar film was 2015’s The Good Dinosaur at $333 M worldwide. Given the dire circumstances, Onward made $133 M with a digital release on March 20th and free to Disney+ subscribers on April 3rd—a very modest total if you compare it to prior releases like 2018’s Incredibles 2 and 2019’s Toy Story 4. Those films already had built-in generational fan bases and were free of a contagious virus in circulation. So, to place any post-pandemic releases under those parameters would be unfair. Last month, we just got our first billion gross film since the pandemic began with Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Two years later, the movie industry is enduring another surge with the Omicron variant. Disney has made another decision, placing another Pixar original on its streaming service, this time with Turning Red 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a panda whenever she gets stressed. Two months before its release date, Disney put the movie on its streaming service, reportedly “shocking and upsetting” some Pixar staff. Three consecutive Pixar films shifted to streaming with no theater screenings—Soul, Luca, and now Turning Red. Disney moved their entire Marvel slate for 2022, including Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to later dates. If Omicron is a concern in the future, why couldn’t they have done this for Turning Red?
Disney 20th Century’s Death on the Nile isn’t shifting from its February 11th release date. (Although, that could be from a particular actor being featured and wanting to bury the release). However, they just ran into this issue with West Side Story. The Soul release is tricky—it was during the 2020 holidays, where many theaters still weren’t open. Given where we were in the world and a mass contemplation of what our day and day lives comprised, it was a lightening-in-a-bottle-moment where the release strategy made sense. Plus, on the tail end of Disney+ service being just over a year old, it’s a bump for the subscriber base, which is now 118 million strong. However, Disney’s first Black-centered animated film not getting a wider release is a sour pill to swallow. Given all of that, Pixar believed this was a one-time deal.
Luca muddies the waters a bit, given what was going on during that time frame. In March 2021, Disney made the call to move Luca to Disney+ and make Black Widow a split release between theaters and their premiere access model. There was a much-publicized backlash from lead actress Scarlett Johansson about compensation, but even then, Pixar employees voiced their displeasure, being another original film immediately went to streaming. Interestingly, neither Soul nor Luca got the premiere $30 rental point, but Walt Disney Animation Studios-created Raya and the Last Dragon did in March 2021. Luca, considered an LGBTQ+ allegory, is another missed opportunity to be seen en masse.
Another Walt Disney Animation Studios product, Encanto, enjoyed a wide release on November 3rd. It grossed $216 million, which is considered low because Disney shortened the film’s theatrical run because of COVID-19. Encanto just won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture—Animated. Encanto made only $83 million more than Onward did when you compare money—also, world makeup and hesitancy to go into a theater with strangers was vastly different year-to-year. Some may say movies geared towards children would be better suited for an at-home experience. In a landscape where parents work from home and movie tickets for an entire family have increased, that may be true. Paramount sent Rumble straight to its service recently. Also, the pandemic isn’t done with us yet, noting the daily case numbers and hospitalizations which are breaking records by the day. Sing 2 is the first animated film to cross the $100 million mark in two years.
But it also is ushering in a new paradigm where the big-budgeted and push for sequel projects will be preferenced on the big screen. Pixar has Lightyear coming out later this summer. The Toy Story IP is a valuable commodity for Disney because the people who grew up with it most likely have families now. I sincerely doubt Lightyear will go straight to Disney+. But isn’t that a problem? Pixar linchpin is original content like Up, Inside Out, Coco, and Ratatouille. Pixar fell into a tempo of sequels to films like Cars, Toy Story, and Monsters. INC, but it was great that they reverted to fresh ideas. Disney+ has a war chest of content from Marvel to Star Wars and even animation shorts based on older Pixar films. Do they need all the major releases, too?
Photo Credit: Disney