Pixar’s movie about a rat with ambitions of becoming an acclaimed French chef started off its box office run at a slow simmer when opening to a less-than-flavorable $47 million in summer 2007. Pundits were quick to pronounce Pixar had botched the recipe in a rare miss. But skeptics were proven wrong when Ratatouille began boiling over on its way to earning $623 million at the worldwide box office.

For decades, the revered animation studio that was backed by the late Steve Jobs before being bought by Disney could do no wrong, using the most unlikely scraps to turn out perfect stews again and again that became both commercial and critical hits at the box office buffet.

That all changed in the past several years, capped by the dismal debut of Elemental over the June 16-18 weekend. The movie, a parable about immigration and getting along, bombed with a $29.6 million domestic debut, the worst three-day weekend start in the company’s history behind Pixar’s first release, 1995’s Toy Story, which earned $29.1 million over the three-day Thanksgiving weekend, a veritable small fortune at the time. (When adjusted for inflation, Toy Story‘s opening weekend haul would be north of $50 million.) Moreover, Toy Story was a groundbreaking success that catapulted Pixar to fame and created an unparalleled brand. Elemental‘s projected four-day domestic opening over the long Juneteenth holiday weekend is $33.4 million.

Elemental‘s failure to galvanize moviegoers leaves Pixar stuck at a crossroads. For years, former Pixar chief John Lasseter balked at becoming a franchise factory (Toy Story and Cars were exceptions).

But family pics that aren’t based on known IP are proving hard to eventize after consumers were trained during the pandemic to stream new Pixar films in the home, a controversial policy orchestrated by then-Disney chief Bob Chapek. Yet not even last summer’s Toy Story spinoff Lightyear, which did receive a traditional theatrical run, could break through. It topped out at a mere $226.4 million globally.

One ray of hope: Elemental earned an A CinemaScore and stellar exit scores on PostTrak, which could result in legs at the box office. It likewise scored well with audiences overseas, where it opened in a handful of major markets over the weekend, including South Korea, where it beat Warner Bros. and DC’s The Flash. In December 2022, most of Hollywood wrote off DreamWorks Animation and Universal’s Puss and Boots: The Last Wish when the threequel opened to a mere $12.4 million domestically over the Dec. 23-25 weekend. But the family pic had nine lives, playing in theaters for months and earning $480.9 million at the worldwide box office. Whether a movie based on original IP can do the same remains to be seen.

On the Disney lot and at Pixar, where Pete Docter is in charge, there’s sure to be plenty of discussion about Elemental and what it means for original vs. branded IP at the studio. Next year, Pixar has the original animated film Elio set for release in theaters, as well as an Inside Out sequel. Any lessons learned from Elemental‘s miss will take time to implement, as course corrections are particularly complicated in the animation space, considering these movies take many years to make. And studio insiders say there would be no franchises without original swings, something Pixar in particular excelled at for decades.

Original versus branded IP is also a crucial issue for Walt Disney Animation Studios, which saw Strange World fall flat last year in earning only $73.6 million globally. Disney execs will be watching closely to see if Disney Animation’s original upcoming Thanksgiving offering Wish can break the curse facing original animated fare.

In hindsight, it’s no surprise why Bob Iger used his first earnings call upon returning as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. to tease additional installments in the hit animated franchises Toy Story, Frozen and Zootopia (the latter two are from Walt Disney Animation). He said the future films were an example of how “we are leaning into our unrivaled brands.” Throughout the February 2023 call, he stressed again and again the importance of curating the company’s marquee franchises.

“The event nature of Pixar films, even original IP, isn’t what it used to be. However, new leadership is seemingly trying to right some of the wrongs from the last few years,” says box office analyst Shawn Robbins. “Elemental‘s mostly positive reception and minimal competition could help the film find legs through summer, and Pixar itself can still have a very bright future ahead as long as its shepherds remain committed to the creative fundamentals that guided the studio for so long.”

The vast majority of Pixar films have opened to $50 million or more at the domestic box office, topped by sequels Incredibles 2 ($182.7 million) and Finding Dory ($135.1 million), not adjusted for inflation. Elemental, The Good Dinosaur and Onward are among the handful of Pixar movies to open to less than $50 million (Good Dinosaur and Onward both launched to $39 million domestically) in their initial wide breaks.

For now, pundits and insiders are left to debate the factors for the record low opening. Among critics, Pixar’s track record was also stellar for long stretches, with many titles boasting a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score in the 90 percent to 100 percent range. Elemental received a more lukewarm response, with a current Tomatometer score of 76 percent. Lightyear fared lower at 74 percent, but still opened to $50.7 million domestically.

Another challenge facing the Disney empire: more competition and a shifting audience for animated movies. Along with kids, adults between the ages of 18 and 34 were a huge reason for the stunning success of Illumination and Universal’s billion-dollar blockbuster The Super Mario Bros. Movie earlier this year; ditto for Sony’s more recent entry Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Historically, Pixar has been famous for attracting an adult audience in addition to families. But in a case of dammed-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, Elemental has so far failed to have that appeal.

Adds Robbins in summing up the Elemental conversation: “Disney’s pandemic era streaming strategies and the rising popularity of other animation studios among modern youngsters and family moviegoers should be considered.”


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