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Pixar Hits a New Low With ‘Onward’ Box Office Debut

The original animated feature gave the studio its worst opening ever, selling fewer tickets than even ‘The Good Dinosaur.’
Onward Box Office
By  · Published on March 9th, 2020

The last two Pixar movies grossed more than a billion dollars each at the box office worldwide (and one of them temporarily broke the box office record for an animated feature debut), but they were sequels to very popular franchises. The animation studio’s latest, Onward, is their first release in a supposed new era of focusing on original stories, and its box office is going to be lucky to reach half of what Disney is used to with the iconic brand.

Part of the issue globally will certainly be due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, which has shuttered theaters completely in some countries while scaring moviegoers from public places elsewhere. In the US, such fears are less rampant, though, and the poor opening for Onward can’t necessarily be attributed to people staying home cautiously.

The animated feature drew an estimated crowd of 4.2 million, which is Pixar’s worst debut ever. Previously, The Good Dinosaur held the studio’s lowest first-weekend attendance, at about 4.5 million. And Pixar’s previous original title, Coco, was also one of the studio’s comparatively disappointing debuts, selling only about 5.5. million tickets to start.

Here are all the Pixar features ranked by their opening weekend (or first wide weekend) attendance:

1. Incredibles 2 (2018): 19.5 million
2. Finding Dory (2016): 15.5 million
3. Toy Story 3 (2010): 14 million
4. Toy Story 4 (2019): 13.1 million
5. Finding Nemo (2003): 11.7 million
6. The Incredibles (2004): 11.347 million
7. Toy Story 2 (1999): 11.297 million
8. Monsters, Inc. (2001): 11.1 million
9. Inside Out (2015): 11 million
10. Monsters University (2013): 9.8 million
11. Cars (2006): 9.2 million
12. Up (2009): 9.1 million
13. WALL-E (2008): 8.8 million
14. Cars 2 (2011): – 8.21 million
15. Brave (2012): 8.17 million
16. A Bug’s Life (1998): 7.1 million
17. Ratatouille (2007): 6.8 million
18. Toy Story (1995): 6.7 million
19. Cars 3 (2017): 6 million
20. Coco (2017): 5.5 million
21. The Good Dinosaur (2015): 4.5 million
22. Onward (2020): 4.2 million 

Disney wasn’t anticipating huge numbers for their latest Pixar release, but Onward still fell below expectations. According to Box Office Pro, the movie was initially tracking, back in early January, for somewhere in the range of $50-70 million with $60 million being their forecast figure. Last week, the site lowered its forecast down to $48 million within a range of $40-60 million. Onward just missed the cut with $39 million. 39,119,861

The low turnout didn’t match the critical reception of Onward, though even the movie’s reviews were on the lower end for a Pixar title. At Rotten Tomatoes, its score is beneath the standard 90s for the studio but at 86% is still above all three Cars installments plus The Good Dinosaur, Brave, and Monsters University, the underrated Monsters Inc. prequel directed by Onward‘s Dan Scanlon. On Metacritic, though, Onward ranks only above the much-derided sequels Cars 2 and Cars 3.

And it’s not just the critics, nor is the box office disappointment reflective of people just not wanting to go to the movies. Opening night moviegoers graded Onward ‘A-‘ via Cinemascore polling, and this is only the second time a Pixar movie has done so poorly. Only Cars 2 received the same mark, while every one of the other 20 animated features received grades of ‘A’ or ‘A+’. So we can’t assume there will at least be helped by word of mouth. Even user scores at various sites are low. It’s not a fan favorite.

Should Pixar be worried? Not just yet. The studio has another original title set for release this year, and that one is more highly anticipated by Pixar devotees and critics alike. Titled Soul, the movie is by Pete Docter, director of Up, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc. And it looks kind of like Inside Out, which was the last Pixar original before The Good Dinosaur and gave the studio one of its best openings ever — overall, not just for a non-sequel.

Beyond this year, however, none of Pixar’s future titles have been revealed yet. However, we do have dates for the next four releases, through summer 2023. One of them is set for a March debut, and perhaps that could change given Onward‘s low ticket sales. But if there’s anything the studio should learn is that audiences want richer stories and more cinematic animation from Pixar. Constant sequels in the past decade were met with a general complaint about a lack of originality but the fact is they still were still consistent in quality, especially in the case of Toy Story 4.

Or Pixar can settle on having some movies that do as well as any other animated features from Hollywood. Consider its opening-weekend attendance compared to other recent original titles (including some adaptations of lesser-known sources) of some significance:

The Secret Life of Pets (2016): 12.1 million
Zootopia (2016): 8.7 million
Moana (2016): 6.5 million
The Boss Baby (2017); 5.6 million
Trolls (2016): 5.4 million
Onward (2020): 4.3 million 
Sing (2016): 4.1 million
The Emoji Movie (2017): 2.7 million
Smallfoot (2018): 2.53 million
Storks (2016): 2.46 million
Abominable (2019): 2.3 million
Wonder Park (2019): 1.7 million
Spies in Disguise (2019): 1.4579 million
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): 1.4576 million
The Star (2017): 1.1 million
UglyDolls (2019): 0.9 million
Missing Link (2019): 0.7 million
Early Man (2018): 0.4 million

You can see that Onward is still a hit compared to most non-Disney animated movies of the past few years, with the genre seemingly on a downward slope since the highly successful crop of 2016. We’ve even seen a lot of mainstream sequels disappoint while big brand non-sequel titles such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (3.9 million) and The Angry Birds Movie (4.4 million) ranking close to Onward‘s debut.

Animated features with about the same or lower openings have had sequels or have sequels in development, though that depends more on the final worldwide grosses for those movies. Onward isn’t likely to get a follow-up, though its story doesn’t really lend itself to a continuation anyway, even though it’d be fun to see other stories set in the modernized fantasy universe established by the movie. Sorry to those hoping for a spinoff centered around the scene-stealing trash unicorns.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.