Elemental's Box Office Gives Disney Reason To Be Cautiously Optimistic About Pixar

Disney, before the pandemic, was an unquestioned force to be reckoned with at the box office, with Pixar serving as a cornerstone of its empire. The animation studio had become one of the most respected brands in cinema after delivering a ridiculous string of hits for 25 years dating back to 1995's "Toy Story," with very few misfires along the way. Unfortunately, that narrative has changed dramatically since 2020, with "Elemental" becoming the latest project from the fabled studio to underdeliver. However, there's reason to remain optimistic about the future.

"Elemental" opened to a disappointing $29.6 million in theaters, partly due to heavy competition from "The Flash" and "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," among others. Given the film's massive $200 million budget, it seemed like it was dead in the water. But not so fast! Word of mouth proved to be pretty dang good for director Peter Son's fantastical take on forbidden love. In its second weekend, the film pulled in a surprisingly decent $18.46 million (per The Numbers). That was good enough to hold onto the number two spot, representing a mere 38% week-to-week drop. With an A CinemaScore, the sturdy holds could/should continue for weeks to come.

Let's be clear, this movie still has an absolute mountain to climb. At the time of writing, Pixar's latest has earned $65.5 million domestically and $55.6 million internationally for a $121.1 million global total. It would probably need closer to $500 million to be considered even a modest hit. That's not going to happen. With that said, the fact that the movie didn't just fall off a cliff in its second weekend like "The Flash" did suggests that Disney may have some positive news on the horizon. That is, assuming they don't abandon original, theatrical animation altogether in the face of massive losses.

Pixar's recent problems

The last time Pixar had an unqualified original theatrical hit was way back in 2017 with "Coco," which made a now-unthinkable $814 million worldwide. But that just used to be how Pixar rolled, with original hits coming in between franchise installments. Case in point, "Incredibles 2" made a staggering $1.24 billion in 2018, with "Toy Story 4" pulling in $1 billion in 2019. Sadly, when Pixar returned with another original in early 2020 in the form of "Onward," the film was kneecapped by the pandemic, with its theatrical run cut incredibly short. But that's where the real problems for this once reliable hit-maker started.

As Covid shut down theaters all around the world, Disney decided to send "Onward" to Disney+ free of charge to give movie lovers who were stuck at home something new to watch. What initially felt like a one-time measure due to extenuating circumstances soon became the norm for Pixar for a full two years. Three critically heralded originals from the studio ("Soul," "Luca," and "Turning Red") were then sent straight to Disney+ at no extra charge to subscribers, which also meant they made little to nothing at the global box office.

"Turning Red," in particular, felt like a major miscalculation, as theaters were doing quite well in early 2022. The horrible side effect these decisions had is that audiences were retrained to believe that Pixar (especially original Pixar) is now something to be enjoyed at home. Why should families journey to the theater to catch Pixar's latest offering when it'll soon make its way onto Disney+? That almost certainly contributed to the disastrous result for "Lightyear" at the box office ($218 million worldwide/$200 million budget) last year. In trying to bolster the profile of Disney+, Disney took the wind out of Pixar's sails.

Disney must endure for Pixar's sake

It's worth pointing out that much of what was done with Pixar's slate during the pandemic was under CEO Bob Chapek. But with Bob Iger now back as CEO, things already seem to be changing. That's why we're getting big animated sequels from Disney, such as "Frozen 3" and "Zootopia 2," along with "Toy Story 5" from Pixar. It makes sense to lean into franchises that worked before, but those franchises don't exist at all unless Disney scores a home run with an original in the first place. That's what's at stake here.

That being the case, that second-weekend number for "Elemental" becomes hugely important. Word of mouth is good for the movie. Animation has done quite well over the last 12 months, with "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish," "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," and "Minions: The Rise of Gru" all doing gangbusters business. What's missing? Original hits. Disney, and more specifically Pixar, feels equipped to weather the storm and give audiences a reason to come back to theaters for a new idea. It just might require some patience, and it's the kind of patience movie studios aren't fond of exercising.

"Elemental" is going to lose money. It's likely that Pixar's next film, "Elio," is going to lose money, too, if recent history tells us anything. Still, if Disney can grit through it and deliver high-quality originals in theaters for the next couple of years, audiences can rediscover their love of enjoying these movies beyond the living room. Optimistically, that would be better for Disney in the long run, as the next generation's big franchises are riding on it. It's not great right now, but it can be great again if Disney has the strength to endure for the better of the future.