Toy Story 4 is doing well at the box office. Three weeks into its release, the sequel has earned over $650 million worldwide, with a good chunk of that being made domestically (which means higher profits for Disney and Pixar).
Soon, Toy Story 4 will surpass Finding Nemo and Inside Out at the domestic box office, but it might only just barely catch up to Toy Story 3. It stands no chance of making the same amount as Finding Dory and Incredibles 2, which are two of the highest grossing animated films of all time.
This is a bit…unexpected. Box office prognosticators like myself predicted a much stronger showing for Toy Story 4, one that would at least keep pace with Finding Dory. Why? It’s a summer release, Toy Story is a beloved franchise, reviews have been stellar, and it’s been almost a decade since the last film. These were all factors that contributed to the massive box office success of Incredibles 2 in 2018 and Finding Dory in 2016.
The same just isn’t happening for Toy Story 4.
To reiterate, the film is doing extremely well by Pixar standards. Just not Pixar sequel standards (disregarding Cars 3, of course). The film should be outperforming Toy Story 3, taking into account inflation. What was $1 billion in 2010 amounts to a far greater sum in 2019. Pixar made Toy Story 4 with the hopes that it would make more profit, not about the same or slightly less.
It’s hard to pin down what’s precisely contributing to this underperformance. It’s been a weak year for animated movies overall at the box office, especially sequels. How to Train Your Dragon 3, The Lego Movie 2, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 have all done far worse business than their predecessors, even with good reviews on their side.
No matter the exact reason, at least one thing is clear. Pixar and Disney now have to reckon with the reality that the sequel gravy train isn’t as long-lasting as they might have hoped. New Pixar sequels won’t necessarily be huge moneymakers, for reasons that are admittedly nebulous and unpredictable. There’s a ceiling to how many movies Pixar can deliver within a single franchise before moviegoers get bored. Audiences just don’t seem to be as invested in a fourth Toy Story as they would be a fourth Avengers film, apparently.
But this is good news for Pixar fans. By and large, we want more original films from the studio, and the underperformance of Toy Story 4 lends credence to artists who want to challenge resourcing decisions. They can now argue that a slew of original Pixar films is badly needed in order to refresh their existing IP in the years before we get an Incredibles 3 or Inside Out 2, which are probably the only sequels most audiences would be curious to see anytime soon.
That said, there’s also a downside to Pixar rethinking their lineup of films in the latter half of the next decade (keep in mind, their next four films are already originals). Yes, they have new incentive to focus on original films because sequels to existing sequels simply aren’t guaranteed hits, but this unearths a new problem. What if Pixar stops making as many original films that don’t have to be franchise starters?
Put more simply, Pixar might stop making films like Coco and WALL-E because stories like that are too standalone in a cinematic landscape where franchises practically rule the box office. Why green light the next Ratatouille or Up when more resources and effort can be put into the next Incredibles, which is a film with so much spectacle, you can’t help but want it to continue.
My worry is that the next truly great original idea for a Pixar film might be tossed aside in favor of something more financially feasible. Or worse, an original idea might be tampered with in order to fit a sequel paradigm outside its intended draw. This is all speculation, and we simply don’t know what Disney and Pixar are truly considering for their next creative output. But we know they’re paying careful attention to what is making money at the box office right now. And they’re not films with satisfying conclusions. They’re films that never really end.