- Disney and Pixar's "Elemental" arrives in theaters Friday.
- The company, which operates both Pixar and Disney Animation, has struggled to drum up ticket sales for its animated fare in recent years.
- Meanwhile Universal's Illumination and DreamWorks animation arms have dominated the box office with hits like "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" and "Minions: The Rise of Gru."
The stakes are high as Pixar releases its 27th feature film in theaters this Friday.
"Elemental," a romantic immigrant story told through anthropomorphic elements of nature, arrives as Disney is under pressure to prove it hasn't lost its golden touch in animation.
The company, which operates both Pixar and Disney Animation, has struggled to drum up ticket sales for its animated fare in recent years. Meanwhile, Universal's Illumination and DreamWorks animation arms have dominated the box office with hits like "The Super Mario Bros. Movie," "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" and "Minions: The Rise of Gru."
Disney's Pixar studio, in particular, is looking to rebound from the box-office letdown that was "Lightyear." The Buzz Lightyear origin story snared just $226.7 million at the global box office in 2022, a fraction of what past Pixar films have generated from ticket sales, according to data from Comscore.
"Elemental" is expected to debut between $35 million and $45 million domestically, according to industry analysts, in the midrange for a typical Pixar release but well shy of the $120.5 million that Sony's animated "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" picked up during its opening weekend earlier this month.
"Animation certainly seems to be going through some winds of change," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "Universal and Illumination are leading that charge after a very successful decade that has seen their streak of successes extend into the 2020s, arguably becoming for today's young Gen Z and older Gen Alpha kids what Pixar and DreamWorks were for Gen X and millennials."
Robbins said the growing diversity in animation studios and increased competition are positives for the industry overall. However, it has also highlighted a dip in Disney's box-office prowess.
The pandemic shuttered theaters one week after the release of Pixar's "Onward," minimizing the box-office potential of the film. With ongoing restrictions, worries about Covid-19 variants and a trend of parents skipping out on theatrical releases, Disney sent "Soul," "Luca" and "Turning Red" directly to Disney+.
"Disney's pandemic strategy of streaming-only distribution, among other creative disruptions, for several of their well-reviewed films did a disservice to the brand, one which new leadership is trying to mend now," Robbins said.
When "Lightyear" went to theaters, consumers were used to Pixar films going straight to streaming. But that confusion was only part of the reason for the lackluster ticket sales.
"Lightyear" shifted away from a formula that had endeared so many generations to the "Toy Story" franchise — focusing on emotional stories with beloved childhood toys.
The feature was billed as an origin story about the film that made Buzz Lightyear the hottest-selling toy and a coveted prize for young Andy. The characters on screen aren't toys that believe they are real — rather they are human. This meta-style story might have been enticing to audiences that grew up with "Toy Story" in the '90s, but for younger generations the science fiction action adventure missed the mark.
Later that year, Disney Animation's "Strange World" also failed to lure in moviegoers, tallying just $72.4 million globally during its run, according to Comscore.
Disney is hoping "Elemental" will be the start of a new era of animated success for its studios. With more family films in theaters after a drought in the slate, the company will have an easier time marketing its upcoming features to theatrical audiences.
The company is set to release Disney Animation film "Wish" in cinemas over Thanksgiving and has two more Pixar films slated for 2024 — "Elio" and a sequel to "Inside Out." Disney also plans to eventually release a fifth film in the original "Toy Story" franchise, a third "Frozen" film and a second film based in the world of "Zootopia."
"Having established itself over the decades as the preeminent producer of animated films, Disney has set the bar for how to perfectly produce, market and distribute animated films," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
Despite recent box-office issues, both Dergarabedian and Robbins foresee a return to form for Disney animation efforts in the future.
"Disney animation boasts unparalleled brand identity, a massive creative talent pool and strong marketing and distribution teams," Dergarabedian said. "This is a perfect time for Disney to hit the reset on their animated film strategy and reestablish themselves as a revered and legendary creator of animated family films."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.