Since the debut of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar’s animated films have helped catapult Disney’s rise to become one of the biggest corporations in the world. Seeing their films in the theater every other year was often an event in and of itself, and that’s led to a powerful, passionate fanbase that’s grown with each sequel or original film. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and film companies have to change their release strategies, Disney’s treatment of Pixar’s recent output is turning heads.
On January 7, Disney announced Pixar’s upcoming film Turning Red would be released exclusively on Disney+ at no extra price. Directed by Domee Shi Bao, the computer-animated film is about a teenage girl who discovers she turns into a giant red panda whenever she’s stressed or upset. Turning Red is now the third Pixar film in a row to released exclusively on Disney+, following last year’s boyhood adventure Luca and the jazzy 2020 film Soul. The studio’s last movie released in theaters was 2020's Onward, which fizzled in its short theatrical release in the early days of the pandemic..
The news of Red’s transition to streaming has left moviegoers divided. Though we are now in year two of a once again surging pandemic, Pixar fans point out Disney’s double standard regarding in-theater releases: Aside from Black Widow, all of the company’s recent Marvel movies have been heavily touted as “only in theaters.” Movies like Disney Animation’s Raya & the Last Dragon had simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming (for the latter, you’d pay $30), and the recent Encanto was in theaters for a month before being added to D+. (Raya and Widow’s dual release method lasted at least three months.) Add to that the news that Pixar employees were already demoralized to see their 2021 films going directly to streaming, and you can see why this is a divisive issue.
On Twitter, media analyst Julia Alexander acknowledged that while putting Red on streaming is the morally correct decision, it could backfire in terms of how viewers regard Pixar. “I imagine it’s so disheartening for the Pixar team to see their movies lose theatricality and go straight to Disney+ without any fee,” she said, since a higher price point for a theatrical experience can give the feeling of higher quality. And because consumer perceptions “change with technology advancements/studio direction,” it can be hard to return those expectations to their original status. “Soul made sense during Christmas 2020,” she noted, “and Luca came during a content lull. Turning Red as an original IP during omicron spikes is a tough sell.”
Conversely, others think the move to streaming is what makes Turning Red more important than ever. In a Twitter thread of her own, culture critic Klaudia Amenábar talked about how Red’s jump to D+ is a net positive, especially because it keeps kids and disabled people safe. “Streaming doesn’t mean Disney doesn’t value Pixar,” she said. “Frankly, it means they value Pixar more... Pixar is a cornerstone of Disney and has been for a while. That’s why they can make non-musical movies for kids and still get the spotlight.” Citing the recent surge of popularity for Encanto on social media, Amenábar pointed out how Red’s free price point (and also piracy) can further benefit Disney. “More people will see these movies because they’re on streaming... the kids will rewatch them, and people will talk about them online.”
Still, a recent report by Insider indicates that several employees feel “extremely disappointed,” and excitement was at an all-time high for a return to theaters. “We all thought Turning Red would be our return to the big screen… it was quite a blow.” None of them fault Disney for the pivot, given the omicron variant, or as another employee plainly puts it: “Sucks, but I get it.”
In the long run, Pixar will doubtless survive and remain a key part of Disney’s cinematic output. At time of writing, their Toy Story spinoff Lightyear is still scheduled as a theatrical exclusive for June, and they have three films scheduled for theatrical release in 2023 and 2024. But with no end in sight for the pandemic, it’s worth asking what kind of future Pixar will have.
Turning Red will release on March 11 in theaters and on Disney+ for free.
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