As Original Animated Movies Struggle At The Box Office, Can Pixar’s ‘Onward’ And ‘Soul’ Reverse The Trend, Succumb To It Or Prove Exceptions To The Rule?

Forbes Finance 1 month ago

The second trailer for Pixar and Disney’s Onward makes the “What if Bright… but for kids?” fantasy look like a skewed cross between Weekend at Bernie’s and Ghost Dad, with maybe a bit of Michael Keaton’s Jack Frost thrown in for bad measure. Those aren’t exactly enticing precedents, but I think we can all agree that Monsters Inc. was better than Little Monsters while Up was better than Danny Deckchair. For that matter, Monsters, University turned out to be a vastly superior (and more mature) version of The Internship even as both movies opened nearly back-to-back. I’ve often said that using adult movies as a hook for kids flicks (Peter Rabbit = Rushmore, Pete’s Dragon = Mama) is a good way to give your movie a solid foundation right from the get-go.

The Dan Scanlon-directed fantasy, penned by Scanlon and C.S. Anderson, concerns two young “men” in a world where fantasy creatures just live amongst each other in a conventional sitcom world. The film, starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer, will be the first of two wholly original Pixar toons opening in the same year. We’re getting Pete Doctor’s Soul (which sounds like What Dreams May Come meets La La Land) on June 16. So, for those who complain that Pixar and/or Disney doesn’t offer anything original anymore, you have a chance to put up or shut up accordingly. That goes to Disney’s 2020 slate in general, which (be it IP or original) is less dominated by nostalgia and 2400 lbs.-pound franchise installments compared to this year. But that’s for another day.

On average, and adjusted for inflation, Pixar’s 13 original toons have earned around $324 million in North American earnings. That includes the terrible showing of The Good Dinosaur and the unusually strong run of Finding Nemo, so even without those two extremes the average is still $326 million. Yes, Pixar’s biggest original hits tend to be their older batch of biggies, as A) Pixar has had its share of sequels lately and B) fewer people go to the movies just to go to the movies. Even Coco, which was a monster overseas (partially thanks to a sky-high $189 million in China), earned “just” $206 million domestic in 2017, but Inside Out earned a stunning $356 million (their biggest unadjusted original gross not counting the Finding Nemo 3-D reissue) in 2015.

If you look at the 2001-2012 slate that came to define Pixar during their peak “originals” period, you’ve got Monsters Inc. ($266 million), Finding Nemo ($339 million sans reissues), The Incredibles ($262 million), Cars ($234 million), Ratatouille ($208 million), Wall-E ($223 million), Up ($293 million) and Brave ($237 million). Sans inflation or 3-D bumps, that averages out to around $258 million over eight movies. However, if you look at the last several years, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur and Coco have averaged “just” $229 million. I bring this all up because, after a post-Up period where they had a lot more sequels than non-sequels, we’re getting two wholly original Pixar toons in one year. And as for how Onward and/or Soul will be received; it could go either way.

Will the current downwind affecting original animated features, which has led to slightly disappointing (Abominable, which would have easily cleared $125 million domestic even five years ago) or awful (Wonder Park) results for non-IP toons, bleed down to Pixar as well with declining results? Or will the comparative downturn in terms of non-IP DreamWorks toons and essentially anything else that isn’t a big sequel leave Pixar as the proverbial only game in town? Will folks who want big-scale, kid-friendly original animated features get their seasonal fill from Onward on March 8 and then Soul on June 19 and give Pixar and/or Disney an even bigger marketplace advantage? Neither notion is inspiring, but when you’ve got a gazillion VOD options for kids, the Saturday afternoon matinee, including copious refreshments, becomes the opposite of a value.

To be fair, it may just be a fluke of the schedule. Disney’s Moana and Illumination’s Sing both scored big bucks at the end of 2016, while DreamWorks’ The Boss Baby earned $175 million domestic in March of 2017. But, yes, this is essentially a two-part question. Will the current downturn for non-sequel toons continue and, if it does, will Disney/Pixar be affected more than usual? After all, Zootopia earned $341 million domestic and $1 billion worldwide, becoming the second biggest wholly original earner ever behind Avatar on the same (domestic) weekend where Onward is launching. If anything, both Pixar originals may benefit (compared to Disney’s recent originals) by not opening on Thanksgiving just a month prior to a Star Wars movie. That certainly didn’t help The Good Dinosaur, Moana or Coco.

Onward will face Godzilla Vs. Kong, A Quiet Place 2 and Disney’s Mulan in March, and then (to the extent it will have legs long enough for this to matter) Peter Rabbit 2 and Trolls: World Tour in April. Soul will open alongside Judd Apatow’s latest in mid-June (continuing a tradition of adult-skewing and/or R-rated fare thriving alongside a new Pixar toon) but will face Top Gun 2 and In the Heights the next week before running smack-dab into Minions 2: The Rise of Gru and Ghostbusters 3 in early July. To be fair, Pixar/Disney and Illumination have a long history of concurrently thriving, going back to Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me kicking relative butt in the summer of 2010. Minions topped Inside Out in 2015, but I think Disney was fine with their $856 million finish.

So, the release dates for these next two Pixar originals are arguably more merciful than the “Okay, let’s all start talking about Star Wars now!” dates for the aforementioned originals, even if arguing anything close to Zootopia’s bonanza would be professional malpractice at this juncture. Will the current dip in original animated fare affect Pixar as well? Has it already done so? Coco was among their lowest grossing domestic earners. Or will Pixar’s two biggies in 2020 be the place for irregular moviegoers to get their cards punched while leaving anything else not explicitly branded to fight for scraps? Come what may, Onward opens on March 6, 2020. Will it end up closer to $325 million domestic, $250 million domestic or $225 million domestic? As always, we’ll see.

Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in 'Onward'
Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in 'Onward'
Tom Holland, Chris Pratt and Octavia Spencer in 'Onward'
Tom Holland, Chris Pratt and Octavia Spencer in 'Onward'
'Onward' poster
'Onward' poster

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