With the release of Onward, Disney-Pixar has hit a new bottom at the box office. That’s an odd thing to say when a film opens no. 1 at the box office with a final total of $39.1 million, but Hollywood is a game of expectations and people have sky-high expectations for Pixar, one of the most respected brands in animation.
Other Pixar films have opened with lower three-day totals — Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, but adjusted for inflation, both of those films would have brought in much more money in 2020 than Onward. What that means is that the Dan Scanlon-directed Onward had the smallest opening weekend theatrical audience ever for a Pixar film.
Onward, the studio’s first original film since 2017’s Coco, was the first Pixar film to ever launch in March, and among March animation releases, it wound up as twelfth-best, trailing such films as Zootopia ($71.1m), Ice Age: The Meltdown ($68m), Home ($52.1m), The Boss Baby ($50.1m), How to Train Your Dragon ($43.7m), and The Croods ($43.6m), among others.
Likely of greater concern for Disney is Onward’s skimpy worldwide opening, which totaled just $28 million from 47 territories. By comparison, The Good Dinosaur opened with $29.8 million from a smaller footprint of 39 territories. That makes Onward’s global total just $67.1 million, far short of analyst projections for a $90-$105 million opening weekend.
A key question remains: Are people avoiding the film because they’re simply not interested in it or are external factors affecting the box office? It’s likely a combination of both. A film about two teens trying to find a way to spend time with their dead dad sounds like a fine idea for a smaller animated film, not a big-studio family blockbuster. And while critics generally liked the film, Onward failed to generate the effusive praise that usually accompanies a Pixar release. But on top of that, the film faced strong headwinds in the international marketplace.
Onward didn’t open in China, where theaters have been shuttered due to the coronavirus, nor did it open in countries most affected by the pandemic, like Italy and South Korea. One has to wonder though whether moviegoers in neighboring European and Asian countries where the film did open perhaps avoided cinemas due to the ongoing threat of the virus.
Another external factor working against Onward is its minor reference to a same-sex relationship, which has led to the film being banned in Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. That doesn’t explain the low global opening, but it could have a minor impact on the film’s final global total.
Animated films tend to have good legs at the box office, so the box office story for Onward isn’t over yet. If word of mouth is strong, the film could still end its run with a respectable gross. For now though, the numbers suggest that this is second-tier Pixar, which is new territory for a studio that used to constantly release hit after hit.