Disney is not your friend. The company never has been and it never will be. Oh sure, it’ll show off bright and happy-go-lucky animated films and have all of your favorite properties under its ever-expanding thumb, but Disney doesn’t care about you. It especially doesn’t care about its own studios or the creative processes that go into filmmaking. At least not anymore. Disney is now strictly a business, and it will do whatever it can to make money, even tarnish the reputation of Pixar, one of the most beloved animation studios in the world.
I’ve made it clear over the past several years my complete and utter disdain for Disney and always struggle whenever I have to cover it. I don’t want to talk about the house of mouse, but because it has pop culture monopolized at this point, it’s impossible not to talk about the company. Even though I don’t care about the MCU, Star Wars, or whatever other franchises it decides to consume in its evergrowing maw, I often defend Pixar.
I love Pixar from an animation standpoint, even if I find a lot of its modern work underwhelming and not as good as its output in the 2000s. There was a beauty and artistry in those earlier works that impacted audiences no matter their age. Pixar films touched upon themes and ideas that, at the time, made them stand out from the cheap family comedies that Dreamworks was pushing out. Even when it become more reliant on franchising and only relying on cutting-edge animation above originality, I still went to see every single one of its films because there’s just something unique about Pixar. There’s an indescribable feeling whenever you sit down in a theater to watch the latest Pixar movie.
Or at least, that’s what I would have liked to say before Disney decided Pixar wasn’t worth screening in theaters anymore. Trust me, no one thinks that’s a good thing.
Since the pandemic began, we’ve had three, technically four, Pixar films that have been unceremoniously shuffled onto Disney+ for audience consumption. Onward, Soul, Luca, and now, Turning Red. In the case of Onward, its shift to VOD was understandable, given that it was released in theaters only a week before the pandemic forced theaters to close for months. I get that during that particular moment in time, there was no way to show the film in theaters, so quickly shifting it to a digital release made sense. I can even understand that with Soul, which received a Christmas Day release on Disney+ since, while theaters were slowly reopening, Disney felt it was safer to release the film on their streaming service as a Christmas gift. It’s when we got to Luca going straight to Disney+ that my head began to tilt. Theaters had been open for a fair amount of time by then and theater capacities were beginning to increase.
The news this week of Turning Red suddenly abandoning its theatrical run two months beforehand feels wrong. We’re seeing a studio once known for box office prestige slowly, but surely, being relegated by Disney to being a studio that makes Disney+ original movies. That simply sucks. Writing that sentence just made me feel hollow inside for all of the wrong reasons. Then again, I don’t think you can feel hollow for the right reasons, but I digress.
To quote Disney’s chairman of Media & Entertainment Distribution Kareem Daniel, “Disney Plus subscribers around the world enthusiastically embraced Pixar’s Academy Award-winning Soul and the critically-acclaimed Luca when they premiered exclusively on the service, and we look forward to bringing them Pixar’s next incredible feature film Turning Red.” No reason was given for the sudden shift in release, but one would likely assume that it would have to deal with the rise of Covid-19 cases across the United States. At first, the response makes sense, but the more you think about it, the more the logical cracks begin to show.
First, let’s just get the big one out of the way: profit. Disney, at the end of the day, believes that if Turning Red was released in theaters, it wouldn’t turn a profit. Despite the adjusted expectations due to the pandemic, the shift to Disney+ means that Disney had no faith that this film would recoup the cost of production on its own and it was a financially better option to release the film for free to current Disney+ users.
The logic behind that decision gets even more confusing when you compare it to Disney’s other non-Pixar-related animated films, Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto. Raya was released in March of 2021 with both a theatrical run and under Disney’s still icky “Premier Access” label, where you have the “honor” of paying $30 to gain access to a movie before it’s released for free three months later. A shameless money grab, to be sure, but at least Disney was trying to actively make back the money it assumed it was going to lose from the limited pandemic attendance.
Then you have Encanto, which was only released theatrically with no digital option and made $215 million worldwide. It was released for free on Disney+ 30 days later, but compared to the two approaches, Encanto seemed to have had the better results financially since trying to find data on how much money Raya made on Disney+ is as difficult as finding an actual dragon. Still, from what we can glean from Raya’s theatrical run, the simultaneous release on Disney+ cut into its total box office. It’s likely that it made a healthy amount of money, but it’s currently unknown if the film was seen as profitable by Disney’s standards. It may also have to deal with the fact that Encanto is a better movie than Raya, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that Disney had opportunities to make money from those two films and it was able to get some kind of a profit. Why have no option whatsoever to allow any of Pixar’s movies the chance to make money?
We are still in the midst of the pandemic (unfortunately), but the box office is doing better than it was this time last year. Movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home, No Time To Die, and even Venom: Let There Be Carnage proved that pandemic releases can still make a big dent in the box office. Granted, they’re not at the levels of pre-pandemic films, but it’s going to be a long time before we reach that era of profitability again. The rise in Omicron cases is concerning, but you’re not seeing other studios abandon ship. Warner Bros. hasn’t delayed The Batman, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still on track for an April release, and major February titles like Death on the Nile and Moonfall seem set in stone. Disney is blinking, but why?
Well, maybe it has to do with a gap in its Disney+ schedule. The next major Marvel show, Ms. Marvel, is set for a summer release, and The Book of Boba Fett is going to conclude in early February. That’s going to be, at a minimum, a three-month gap in major new streaming releases for Disney. Disney needed content to go onto Disney+, so it needed a sacrificial lamb, or panda, to make sure that subscribers would get their precious new content. So just use Pixar again. Why not? The company set the precedent itself for the past three films. Just use Pixar as an incentive to keep subscribers paying for Disney+!
It’s very clear that these decisions are not being decided at Pixar. When Luca was gutted in favor of a streaming release, it sent a lot of the staff at Pixar into a depressive state. Many of the staff thought that the films they poured their heart and soul into were seen as just another feature for Disney+. Each movie is only released theatrically for the bare minimum amount of time so it can qualify for Oscar runs and net awards, but a giant question mark was raised at the studio if Disney even saw them as financially valuable anymore. One staffer correctly pointed out that Luca didn’t even get the “Premier Access” treatment. It wasn’t even seen as worthy of costing $30. Pixar’s films, according to Disney, are not as valuable as Black Widow, Cruella, Raya, and even Mulan.
To add insult to injury, all of the past Disney+ exclusive Pixar movies were original films not based on any established IP. They all came from people with a genuine heart and passion for stories they wanted to tell and knew that their films almost certainly wouldn’t make as much money as other Pixar-established franchises. Turning Red certainly wasn’t going to make Toy Story 4 money, but it was still an important film to see since it’s Pixar’s first movie to be directed by a woman. An Asian woman at that, who wrote the script and has heavily based the story on her culture. Are these stories not seen as being worthy of a theatrical release, but a prequel about Buzz Lightyear of goddamn Star Command is worthy? No, it’s just because that movie is guaranteed to turn a profit while Turning Red isn’t, so throw it into the Disney+ pile alongside Home Sweet Home Alone.
Don’t think for a second that they’re going to recoup their costs from the merchandise. One of my closest friends worked in Disneyland for several years and has verified numerous times that Pixar merch, whatever does get made, does not sell. Pixar’s films are not seen as inherently merchandisable unless they’re already a part of a major franchise that’s been around for years. There’s barely an ounce of hope of anyone buying Soul, Luca, or Turning Red merch because that implies Disney actually wants to make those into franchises. No, Disney only keeps Pixar around to have awards prestige and as soon as that dries up, it’s bye-bye Pixar.
What, is that too harsh? Frankly, I don’t care. I’m just sick of Disney doing this. I’m sick of Disney turning one of its most beloved and decorated studios into a bullet point on its streaming service. It doesn’t even give Pixar the respect to charge customers for its films, which I find wrong on so many levels. Disney does not care about the art or artistry of animation. I mean, I’ve known that for a while, but please don’t act shocked that Disney is doing something like this. The house of mouse is a cold and calculated monolithic corporation that will do anything to make sure it doesn’t lose profits, and if it involves ripping out the heart and soul of freaking Pixar to do it, that will be done in a heartbeat.
I don’t even know if I want to see Turning Red. I was extremely excited to see the film, but now I feel like if I watch it, I’m giving Disney exactly what it wants. It wants proof that people will flock in droves to Disney+ to see Turning Red for their precious engagement. But I want to support the staff who labored to make the film, which will hopefully be good. Gotta love the ethical dilemmas created by a soulless company in the search for not just having money, but ALL of the money. Disney is dead to me. Why isn’t it dead for the rest of you?