Early this year, Pixar CCO Pete Docter attempted to explain Lightyear's critical and financial failure as being the film "[asking] too much of the audience" regarding its premise. The same critical failure appeared to affect Elemental when it debuted at Cannes, but recent reviews have been far more flattering.
However, the failure of both these films at the box office goes beyond their quality. The way Disney has distributed Pixar films since the beginning of the pandemic has caused irreparable damage to the brand.
Elemental Extinguished at Box Office
Pixar's Elemental earned $29.6 million during its first three-day weekend at the domestic box office, making it the lowest opening weekend for any Pixar film after the original Toy Story.
Unadjusted for inflation, Toy Story had a five-day Thanksgiving opening weekend of $39 million, but its 3-day weekend was just $29.1 million.
For comparison, these are the lowest openings for some of Pixar's other films:
Ratatouille - $47 million
The Good Dinosaur - $39.2 million
Onward - $39.1 million
Elemental - $29.6 million
Toy Story - $29.1 million
Although adjusted for inflation, Toy Story would have had a five-day opening weekend of $78 million and a three-day opening of $58.2 million, putting Elemental dead last.
How Disney+ Broke Pixar
Animated kids' movies depend not on big opening weekends like other blockbuster films but on their legs, how they hold the box office day to day and week to week. It's why despite Ratatouille having the fifth-worst opening in the company's history, it still earned a healthy $206.4 million domestically.
But that strategy was ruined for short-term investment in Disney's streaming service, Disney+. During the pandemic, former Disney CEO Bob Chapek mistakenly sent Pixar's Soul, Luca, and Turning Red straight to Disney+ without a theatrical release.
It irreparably damaged how families perceive and watch these movies. Yes, Lightyear was released in theaters, along with Elemental, but now families are conditioned just to wait for them to stream on Disney+.
Even Pete Docter realized that "in the long run," this strategy "trained audiences that these films will be available for you on Disney+:"
In the long run, there’s been a bit of a mixed blessing because we’ve trained audiences that these films will be available for you on Disney+. And it’s more expensive for a family of four to go to a theater when they know they can wait and it’ll come out on the platform.
By all accounts, Elemental should do fine at the box office. It has a moderate score of 76% from critics and 91% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes and an A rating from CinemaScore. So, could Elemental still pull off strong enough legs not to be a flop? Or will it sizzle out at the box office like Lightyear?
Pixar's Elemental is currently playing in theaters.