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Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. movie is in the middle of a historic theatrical run that has been all good news for its distributor Universal Pictures and exhibitors screening the film.

That said, the performance of the rest of this summer’s animated theatrical features could tell us a lot more about the future of feature animation distribution as the industry continues to adapt in the wake of the pandemic.

It’s hard to overstate just how phenomenal Mario has done at the box office. The film has sat in the top spot at the domestic box office for four straight weeks. According to a new report published by Variety featuring data collected by Comscore, that feat has only been accomplished by 13 other films since 2000. The last time an animated film pulled it off was in 1995, when the first Toy Story film was top of the box office for six straight weeks. Mario is also the first animated film to hit $1 billion since The Lion King and Frozen 2 managed to do so in 2019.

Is Mario’s performance an exceptional outlier? Or is it perhaps indicative of a theatrical landscape that has more room for feature animation? We may get an answer about the larger state of theatrical animation next month, when three animated features will be in cinemas at the same time.

Here’s a look at this summer’s frontloaded theatrical release calendar for studio features.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Releasing June 2

After Mario, perhaps no animated film coming out this year has quite as much buzz around it as Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Hopes are high for the sequel to 2018’s breakout hit that went on to win the animated feature Oscar. That said, the first film “only” made $375.5 million at the global box office and $190 million domestically. Those are, of course, phenomenal numbers, especially put against the film’s $90 million budget. That total is, however, a mere fraction of what recent big franchise films like Mario (now over $1 billion) and Minions: The Rise of Gru ($939.4 million), have accomplished. It’s also a minor figure compared to the global grosses of the live-action Spider-Man films. To be considered a hit, at least in commercial terms, Across the Spider-Verse will need to do far better than its predecessor while facing stiff competition.


Elemental – Releasing June 16

Pixar’s Elemental will look to right the box office wrongs of the last two Disney-distributed animated features, Lightyear and Strange World (the biggest and third-biggest box office bombs of 2022). Going toe-to-toe with Spider-Man could prove an uphill battle for Elemental, which will also see more direct competition during its third week in theaters when Universal Pictures releases Dreamworks’ Ruby Gillman.


Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken – Releasing June 30

Dreamwork’s upcoming original animated feature is a big question mark. It’s an entirely new IP and will debut while both Spider-Man and Elemental are still strong competitors at the box office. One factor playing in Ruby’s favor though is there are no big studio animation releases for the entire month of July. In fact, the next big animated film won’t hit theaters until early August.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem – August 4

Few franchises get rebooted as often as TMNT, and this summer sees an all-new version of these heroes in a half-shell heading to cinemas. Produced by Nickelodeon Animation and Point Grey Pictures, this film could be a sleeper hit. The only direct competition it will face in the kids and family space is Disney’s Haunted Mansion, which doesn’t seem like that intimidating of a rival. Another potential threat is DC’s Blue Beetle, which comes out on August 18.


What About July?

It is a bit shocking to see such a packed June after having no animated studio features released between Puss in Boots: The Last Wish on December 21 of last year and Mario on April 5 of this year. We saw a similar gap last year between Warners’ DC League of Super-Pets (July 29) and Disney’s Strange World (November 15), and it’s not a trend that should become permanent.

Stranger still that July’s calendar is almost entirely devoid of kids and family content until the very last weekend, when Disney’s live-action Haunted Mansion hit cinemas on July 28.

Part of the reason Mario has done so well is that, for the most part, the only other studio films in theaters for the past month have been aimed at adult audiences. It seems odd then that for the entire month of July, while school is out and high temperatures make an air-conditioned cinema an appealing retreat, the only animated films in theaters will be the month-old Spider-Man and Elemental and a non-franchise wildcard in Ruby Gillman.

What could we learn this summer?

If Spider-Man, Elemental, Ruby Gillman, and/or TMNT struggle to sell tickets, distributors could become pickier when choosing release dates for their films. Obviously, a great deal of thought goes into picking these dates already, but for the past year, release schedules have had us scratching our heads.

Of course, we’d love to see three animated features released in theaters every month, but in the current theatrical climate, it makes no sense at all. That said, there should be at least one animated film hitting cinemas each month. If this summer’s animated offerings do well, perhaps distributors and exhibitors will work harder to avoid the months-long stretches where theaters have no animation at all to offer audiences.

From a production standpoint, if June proves that multiple animated films can make money despite a crowded release schedule, perhaps studios will be inclined to boost their pipelines and start producing more theatrical-quality animated features. We can hope anyway.

Pictured at top: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Elemental, Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem