How Pixar Dominated The Summer

By  · Published on August 25th, 2016

It was more than the year-topping success of Finding Dory.

Disney began this summer dominating the 2016 family film market in the US. Three of their releases – the animated feature Zootopia, the live-action kids’ movie The Jungle Book, and the slightly older-skewing superhero sequel Captain America: Civil War, which got the season started – joined the darker comic book flicks Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the ranks of the five highest-grossing pictures of the year (excluding Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is also Disney and opened in 2015 but was still in theaters through May). Those five are still among the year’s champs, but they’ve been joined by two more animated family films, Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory and Universal/Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets.

Although traditionally viewed as four-quadrant blockbuster territory, the summer movie season has always been a good place for younger-leaning fare because the kids are out of school during the week, and on the weekends families like to go to the theater together for something appropriate for all ages. That’s not just a summer thing, obviously given the earlier hits in that demo, but it also shouldn’t be surprising that the two biggest hits in America since Memorial Day are those two animated films. Still, this was a surprising and tricky time for animated and family entertainment. Not all were successes. In fact Ice Age: Collision Course, the fifth installment of a series that typically makes tons of money was a shocking flop.

What went right and wrong for these movies this summer are not easy to explain, as you can see from the analysts. For the animated films, there’s Finding Dory, a follow-up to a 13-year old movie (Finding Dory) that defies the general argument this year that audiences don’t want sequels. Then there’s The Secret Life of Pets, a non-franchise title that exceeded expectations supposedly because it was “original” and so did fit that anti-sequel narrative. And Ice Age bombed because again nobody wanted sequels – never mind that every single other installment of that series was one of the biggest moneymakers of its year worldwide, most of them in the top five. Sequel fatigue or whatever, its $61m gross is truly an unsolvable mystery.

Four more fully animated features came out this summer, one of them being the family friendly stop-motion adventure Kubo and the Two Strings, which disappointed at the box office even by Laika Entertainment standards because in spite of its near-universal praise from critics it was actually too unique, to the point that it wasn’t all that clear what it was about, especially compared to stuff like Dory, Pets, and Ice Age, and frankly wasn’t marketed as being very fun, especially compared to those same three computer-generated cartoons. The others were the R-rated films Batman: The Killing Joke, which got a brief showing, and the unforeseen critical and box office hit Sausage Party, plus The Angry Birds Movie, a movie that happened.

That last one was going to do okay business no matter what, because the video game it’s based on is a pop culture phenomenon, but it was neither a real hit nor something anyone who even saw it is thinking of a few months later (or wasn’t until this sequel announcement came out of nowhere). The true standout hits are Dory, Pets, and Sausage Party, and together they spell a huge win for Pixar. The first was made by them and the other two might as well have been. Most critics dismissed Pets for being a Toy Story ripoff, which is valid though also nothing really against it considering Toy Story was not itself wholly original. Also, ironically Sausage Party was praised for its likeness to the same feature on account of it having the twist of being a raunchy adults-only take on the Pixar wheelhouse.

When Adult Animation Wins Over Live-Action Family Fare

As for Pixar’s parent company, Disney also owned the live-action family film market this summer but not in any way worth celebrating. For one thing, the studio had very little competition in the G/PG department. Discounting Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship (yep, it’s PG) and a few small-scale sports movies including Pele: Birth of a Legend and Greater, which opens Friday, the only notable non-Disney live-action family film of the season was Nine Lives, and that cat unsurprisingly lost against the Mouse House’s trio of Alice Through the Looking Glass, The BFG, and Pete’s Dragon. However, all three are disappointments given their cost and presumed appeal, the former two certain financial disasters.

Again, it’s difficult to fully determine what happened. We can blame sequel fatigue for Alice, but its level of failure is still astonishing given that so far the studio’s live-action remakes of its animated classics have been going very well, with The Jungle Book doing remarkable business earlier in the year. But it was the first follow-up of the bunch since 102 Dalmatians, which also underperformed. Pete’s Dragon also partly fits the same trend and isn’t a sequel, but its hybrid source isn’t as well-regarded as a real “classic,” and it may have just been too folksy (as in hokey) for today’s audiences. Not that The Jungle Book isn’t also pretty corny at parts, as well. Perhaps there was just room for only one feral kid in Disney movies this year.

Finally, there’s The BFG, which performed about as well as Disney’s other Roald Dahl adaptation, the 1996 stop-motion-animated James and the Giant Peach, but it should have done much better. Understandably coming from Steven Spielberg, The BFG is directed better than any other tentpole this season by a wide margin. It also has a delightful performance from recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance, and complimenting that prestige it has a good deal of lowbrow humor (farts, namely), which judging by all the trailers for animated features that show a character pooping in fright these days should be what the people want. Perhaps there was just room for only one giant man in Disney movies (the other being Civil War) this year.

The main lesson learned this summer for family and animated movies is that people want something familiar, preferably made by or clearly inspired by Pixar or a direct and faithful live-action remake of a Disney animated feature. If only the 1989 animated version of The BFG had been made by the Mouse House. And if only the 1977 Pete’s Dragon had been strictly animated. And if only Kubo was creatively influenced by Pixar movies the way Laika is constantly cited as being influenced by the studio as a company. But the industry shouldn’t be looking too hard at this summer for tips on what to do for success in the future, because this was indeed a weird season for family fare, and anyway when children are involved you just never know.

Related Topics: ,

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.