The Second Consecutive Summer of Theater Bombs Shows Disney Failures Are Affecting Pixar

(Bill Hader)

This weekend, Disney and Pixar released “Elemental” and experienced another massive box office failure. 

Hollywood is still feeling its way through the post-pandemic era, as the viewing habits and release platforms have shifted things significantly. Audiences are a less stable entity, and normally reliable genre films are facing challenges. As franchise titles and other blockbusters are delivering a haul, categories like comedies, romance, and adult dramas are mostly being ignored. The release shakeout is still taking place.


While dealing with this movie morass, Disney has become an avowed woke entertainment outlet, with not only its public feud with Florida governor Ron DeSantis still brewing, but the company has delivered a string of social lectures disguised as big-name established properties. This mindset has delivered a consistent string of releases that have wavered between being big losses to embarrassing failures. This weekend extended that list.

As a sign of how much motion pictures have evolved, this past weekend, we saw both a comic book hero release and an animated family venture being released. Both were seen as significant failures but for very different reasons.

After years of delays, Warners finally saw the release of its comic book character “The Flash,” part of the originally attempted expansion of its superhero universe. Not only was “Justice League” — intended to launch a number of character films, such as “Aquaman” — a disappointment, but the pandemic delayed its initial release. Then star Ezra Miller went through a series of legal problems in numerous countries, proving to be a social pariah and PR nightmare. After letting his controversies cool down, Warners finally saw a major film being released but was hobbled since the star and cast were not used for promotions.


Projections had “The Flash” earning around $75-85 million, so its $70 million take this weekend is a severe disappointment. Pixar, meanwhile, was releasing “Elemental,” an allegory of immigration using the earthly elements as characters. Expectations were already scaled back before the weekend, down to $35-40 million predicted, and the release still missed those targets, earning just $29.6 million. Following a respectable preview Thursday night, the film tapered off through the weekend, actually losing its audience rather than building on it. Not only is this a huge disappointment for Disney, but it ranks as one of the worst openings for Pixar.

The studio appears to be following the playbook of Disney in that the socially-significant aspects of the production were trotted out instead of highlighting the story and characters. There were those touting the merits of having the leads being a mixed-race couple, and of course, we had to hear about the inclusion of a non-binary character in the lineup. Not only have these moves been divisive with audiences and led to financial disasters (“Lightyear” and the flop “Strange World” made similar insistent boasts), but they are superfluous. How is race and/or sexuality a factor with fictionalized animated elements like water and fire?! It is all so unneeded.


While that animation studio’s debut effort, “Toy Story,” had a similar debut, that was in 1995, where adjusting for inflation it would be near double today, as well as going on a very long run as a smash hit a quarter century ago. Last summer, Disney-Pixar had a notable bomb in the origin story film “Lightyear,” and that one opened at $50 million, though it barely doubled that total in its run and was a huge money loser. This debut is more in line with other lowly accepted titles like “The Last Dinosaur” ($39 million premiere) and the same total for “Onward,” its debut impacted by being released the week before theaters shuttered due to COVID-19.  

Overseas, the film was also lightly received. China, the market most in need of delivering to help this title recover, only had a $5 million weekend, and it is not likely to get better. That country usually has about a three-week run time for US titles, and there is a major national holiday coming up when they replace most theater releases with movies made domestically. “Elemental” will need a significant boost overseas to get to a break-even level. With budget and marketing, the film will need at least a $450-500 million return to get into profitability.


It is becoming clear Disney is languishing with content that has leaned heavily into social messaging, and there is no quick fix ahead, despite Bob Iger taking back control of the studio. In his recent corporate earning call, he stressed the studio would lean on existing franchises for future releases, a clear attempt to right the ship and move from the woke content affecting the returns. While a safe maneuver, these films take years of production time, so any new products will take time. But there is also the Iger reality to contend with on new projects.

While Bob Chapek was at the helm for the past year of dismal returns, most of that content was in the works, meaning he was essentially releasing Iger-approved products. Also, any of Chapek’s new projects were limited because there was a backlog of releases due to the pandemic closures. So Iger is more or less overseeing the effects of his own approved content.

Pixar, after decades of consistently large successes, is on a string of failed releases. After “Onward” was impacted by theaters being shuttered, there were “Soul,” “Luca,” and “Turning Red,” each being debuted on the Disney+ streaming service. Now, as it returns to theaters, the animation hit factory is falling prey to the woke decisions — both internally and from parent company Disney — that are steering audiences away from the box office.



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