For a few years in the 2010s, Pixar seemed to be growing overly reliant on sequels. From a studio known for dazzling us with creative, original masterpieces, we were suddenly getting unnecessary Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo follow-ups. Cars became a trilogy, and Toy Story needlessly lingered after a satisfying ending. Was Pixar simply running out of new ideas?
If it was then, it hasn't been lately. In the last two years, Pixar has released four original films — the newest of which is Turning Red, out Friday, March 11 — and all have been good, and some outright fantastic. It's unfortunate, then, that the latter three have all gone straight to streaming, never to be seen in U.S. theaters like their creators intended.
Pixar's return to theaters should have been Turning Red, a hilarious and energetic coming-of-age comedy which is refreshingly open about puberty, novel territory for Disney. It's vital to ensure this kind of daring original movie doesn't disappear from multiplexes forever, and this release is a loss for a film that deserved more.
After back-to-back sequels in Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, Pixar's Onward became one of the first movies impacted by COVID-19 in early 2020, hitting Disney+ when theater closures cut its run short. Over the next 15 months, while it remained unfeasible to release kids' films exclusively in theaters mid-pandemic, Disney dropped two more original Pixar movies intended for theaters, Soul and Luca, on Disney+. Unlike other Disney films that came out during this period, including the non-Pixar animated movie Raya and the Last Dragon, neither got a simultaneous theatrical release (except in territories that don't have Disney+).
It was hard to argue too much with these moves given the circumstances, though it was curious that Soul and Luca were given to subscribers for free, while other new movies like Raya were debuting on Disney+ via "Premier Access" for $30. Would this subtly suggest to consumers Pixar movies are less deserving of their money?
Either way, it all seemed pretty temporary. The plan was for Turning Red, the first Pixar movie for which a woman has received sole directing credit, to hit theaters exclusively in March 2022. But come January, Disney announced the film would instead debut on Disney+ this Friday — once again for free, and once again with no option to see it theatrically in the United States (other than at a few individual theaters like Hollywood's El Capitan).
The decision was made at the height of the since-subsided Omicron surge, and Disney cited "the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films." The choice seemed more influenced, though, by the company's experience with Encanto, an original animated film that wasn't a massive hit theatrically in November but became a phenomenon after it streamed on Disney+ over Christmas. Most importantly, Disney wanted to bolster its exclusive streaming offerings at the start of the year to retain subscribers. Pixar is reliably popular, and in that context, these streaming releases look like praise for the studio from its parent company, not a devaluation.
But now that Turning Red is here, the fact that it's a streaming-only release still feels like a missed opportunity. Sure, it's debatable whether Turning Red would have been a box office smash, but it could have provided strong theatrical counterprogramming to The Batman in a month with no major releases for families. Moreover, it's not as if there's been no demand for family films in theaters lately; for example, Sing 2 has grossed $360 million since opening in December.
Making this even more disappointing is the fact that Turning Red in some ways feels genuinely groundbreaking for Disney. Following a 13-year-old girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she becomes intensely emotional, it does what the best Pixar films do: tackles grounded issues through a wildly creative premise.
In this case, the real subject is the experience of being a teenager, going through puberty, and confronting aspects of ourselves we've been conditioned to feel embarrassment about. In the process, the film is delightfully honest about teenage crushes, puberty, and, yes, menstruation. This might be the first major animated movie in which the topic of getting your first period is broached. Turning Red also has no qualms depicting its teenage girls' very teenage experiences, allowing them to lust openly after boys while sending a message that these kinds of feelings are nothing shameful.
Outside of the puberty metaphor, the film delivers a touching mother-daughter story as well, and it's consistently funny and gorgeously animated, too. Simply put, Turning Red is exactly the kind of movie on which Disney should be doubling down. It deserved the prestige that comes with having some presence in movie theaters, even if that meant debuting on streaming at the same time.
As a low-key coming-of-age comedy, Turning Red might be perceived as less of a theatrical "event" than something with more action like Incredibles 2. But the industry desperately needs to combat this notion that only spectacle-filled films are worth seeing in theaters. Pixar, as a brand itself, is one of the few studios potentially capable of changing that perception. And anyway, Turning Red does have a more expansive third act that surely would have had more impact on a larger screen.
Sadly, though, the marketplace is evolving into one in which nearly nothing is released theatrically unless it's a sure thing, typically a story based on a pre-existing property. Pixar's return to theaters is now scheduled to be the Toy Story spin-off Lightyear, which has a built-in audience and represents nearly no risk for Disney.
Consumers have spent two years being conditioned to expect high-quality, original Pixar films for free at home, potentially making them less likely to pay for those movies going forward. Then, when Lightyear is released in theaters, it could reinforce the notion that audiences should only bother going to the multiplex for movies based on something they recognize. And when Lightyear inevitably becomes a hit — something Turning Red didn't even have the opportunity to be — it could reignite Pixar's troubling sequel fixation all over again.
The good news is that Turning Red proves Pixar's still got it. The studio can still deliver excellent animated films with creative, new ideas. But if the day comes when COVID-19 is finally, fully over, and theaters are no longer a place for this kind of storytelling, so much of that talent would go to waste.