Is Disney's Pixar Finally Mortal?

It was bound to happen. Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Pixar couldn't crank out critically acclaimed movies forever.

This weekend's release of Cars 2 is Pixar's first theatrical release to be widely panned by film reviewers. As of this morning, just a third of the 147 vetted critics tracked by Rotten Tomatoes liked the computer-rendered flick.

It's not just the natural bias against sequels. Cars 2's embarrassing score of 33 (or a 33% freshness rating) is in sharp contrast to the stellar scores of 100 and 99 that Toy Story's follow-ups received. Even DreamWorks Animation's (Nasdaq: DWA  ) Shrek the Third -- the third and most critically dissed installment in the rival studio's biggest franchise -- managed to woo 41% of its jaded critics.

Disney shareholders will argue that professional reviewers are irrelevant. Families are the ones that will ultimately vote with their pocketbooks, and Cars 2 was a hit over the weekend. The sequel -- that moves Lightning McQueen and his loyal sidekick Tow Mater overseas -- sold a whopping $68 million in tickets through 4,115 North American multiplex screens.

For those scoring at home, that is three times more than the box office receipts generated by Disney's celluloid dud Mars Needs Moms earlier this year. It was that film's disastrous showing that forced the media giant into a rare quarterly miss. You won't be seeing Mars Needs More Moms anytime soon.

However, let's not dismiss the low Rotten Tomatoes -- or rotten Tow Mater -- scores so quickly. Of course Cars 2 was going to have a blowout opening. The original release reportedly spurred nearly $10 billion in global merchandise sales. Ticket sales will fall off quickly if negative word of mouth begins making the rounds. Given the merchandising juggernaut of the franchise, a sharp drop off in interest will hurt Disney far more than even Mars Needs Moms' fiasco.

Then again, there probably aren't too many boys under the age of 10 in Rotten Tomatoes' pool of pro critics. It's the youngsters that will decide if the film is a winner or a loser, though parents may think twice about giving it a repeat screening or paying a premium for one of the IMAX (NYSE: IMAX  ) showings if it's not entertaining to them.

This has certainly been a strange year in animation. Rio and Rango -- put out by News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) Fox and Viacom's (NYSE: VIA  ) Paramount, respectively -- were springtime hits. Disney flopped with Mars Needs Moms, and shares of 3-D outfitter RealD (NYSE: RLD  ) took a hit last month after DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 2 disappointed investors by grossing less than the original.

There are no more certainties in theatrical animation. You don't need to be a big name to have a hit. You can't assume that a killer franchise will be sustainable. In the eyes of critics, at least, Pixar is no longer perfect.

Did you catch Cars 2 over the weekend? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney, DreamWorks Animation SKG, and IMAX. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz can usually be found at Walt Disney World. Not today, though. He does own shares in Disney. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (17) | Recommend This Article (5)

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  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 11:44 AM, CromulentBrad wrote:

    pixar produces one film that isn't universally loved and you're ready to open the casket lid?

    who expects pixar to be "perfect?" and whatever happened to establishing a behavioral pattern? by all accounts, pixar's track record has been stellar. one slight step isn't any reason to question their methods or future endeavors.

    jordan missed a few shots. peyton throws ints every now & then. hell, even buffet invested in some lemons. nobody is perfect. that shouldn't even be the standard by which they are judged.

    this article says more about society's knee jerk overreaction to every situation than pixar's future or credibility.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 11:48 AM, Jayrozz wrote:

    Nor has it even opened in all off the IMAX theaters globally yet. Sure they may get bad ratings from movie critics, but guess what, those movie critics are all WELL over the target market age of Cars 2. It won't gross as much as Avatar 2 did for IMAX but i garuentee it's top 3 when its all said and done.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 12:58 PM, DoctorLewis4 wrote:

    Well -- I saw it. It was wonderful. The audience loved it. I actually heard a well known critic pan Cars and praise Bad Teacher. I also saw Bad Teacher. Focus on the word BAD. Sadly, critics aren't what they used to be. PIXAR still rules!

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 1:26 PM, adrain1 wrote:

    Although the picture was visually stunning, the film was very linear story wise, with a sub plot being more prominent and treated more imprtantly then the main. The film overall was good, but not as a sequel, it's not a continuation of the story, but rather a continuation of the characters lives. Overall the film is entertaining and fun, but don't go with the expectation of a sequal, go with the mind set that it's a new movie with familiar faces, and you'll enjoy the film as much a I did.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 1:46 PM, rgentile24 wrote:

    Reviewers can dislike Cars 2 all they want, but as a mom of a 3-year old (who was in the theaters this weekend) if it holds the attention of my kid for an hour and keeps him occupied so I can cook dinner, then I'm going to buy it. Even if I dislike it (which I didn't; it was relatively entertaining). They're kids, it has Lightning, Mater and it's animated. That's all they care about.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 3:59 PM, SlowElectron wrote:

    I think the critics were just waiting for some type of misstep by Pixar, with the obituaries on file and ready to be set to the printers. I'm not putting Fool in that category, because this article is not panning the movie, but just noting that it has had less than favorable reviews. Anyway, people love Pixar characters, and this movie did not at all hurt the Cars franchise like Shrek 3 tarnished its legacy. Go see the movie (if you like Pixar movies). In my opinion, it was better than the first.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 4:45 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    You know what my favorite part of Cars 2 was? Watching it next to my almost four year old boy. He loved it. All of it. This movie was written, directed and produced for him and all the other kids. The grumpy Smigols of the darkened movie houses can take their snootieness and cram it deep into their popcorn bags. BTW: The first fifteen minutes were written for dads like me. If you are a classic Bond fan you'll find yourself whispering "this is so freaking cool!" and fighting the urge to throw your arms into to the air.

    Not every Pixar pic can be Toy Story or The Incredibles just like every U2 album can't be Joshua Tree or One. Admit it. Zooropa was craptastic.

    And by the by: All that Cars and Cars 2 money is going to knock you on your butt in 2012 when they release Brave. The preview for that was awesome.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 10:00 PM, TMFRhino wrote:

    Haha, love it cato. You almost make me want to watch the film... almost. :)

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 10:50 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    Cato, I'm so with you.

    I took my almost four-year-old daughter to Cars2 this weekend. Was this on the level of The Incredibles or Toy Story? No. Was this in any way remotely as bad as Shrek the Third, to go with a reference by Rick in the article. NO, no, NO. Cars2 is Casablanca next to Shrek the Third.

    Separately, having perused a few of the negative critical responses, on Rotten Tomatoes of course, while deciding whether to take my kid to Cars2 or Kung Fu Panda 2 this weekend, I got the distinct impression that a lot of the critics are coastal snobs.

    Now I'M a coastal snob. But I grew up in the country. And it was apparent to me that some of these critics really, really, really don't like Mator. And do you know what they like even less? The fact that Mator saves the day and that McMissile give him mad props. They friggin' hate that. I was at a party with some young-Hollywood agent's assistant types a couple years ago, and two told me the original Cars was Pixar's worst movie. They hated Mater in Cars. They hated the romanticizing of small-town life. The hate Mater. They hate Larry the Cable Guy.

    So, word to the wise. Take the Cars2 reviews with a grain of gourmet Himalayan pink salt. Cars2 is a not a great movie, but in the tomato-meter of my imagination, I would put in in the solid 50-60% range. (It simply is not as much a movie made for adults as are most of the other Pixar movies, too.) I certainly won't be telling my friends with small kids not to see it though. This is a case where, on word of mouth, I suspect it will do fine.

  • Report this Comment On June 27, 2011, at 11:04 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    "Mater is dumb, excitable and puppy-dog loyal, his idiot-savant automotive expertise grounded in humble, blue-collar simplicity. I doubt anyone will protest much, but Pixar has now found its redneck Jar-Jar Binks. Such a proud moment." A.O. Scott, NYT

    "This is Mater's movie. It's a Materthon. I would call it Materific if he didn't leave me longing for WALLE's robot to crush him into a silent cube." TIME

    "The constantly shifting scenery and the over-reliance on Mater's idiocy combine to produce a fatigue not common to better Pixar efforts." Toronto

    "As lovable as Mater is, let's face it: A little bit of Larry the Cable Guy goes a long way." WaPo

    "Someone must like Mater, who's already had his own spinoff TV show. Just as someone must like Larry the Cable Guy, who voices him. But that someone isn't me, and if it isn't you, you're in for one very long matinee." Newark Star-Ledger

    In short, Palin's so-called "Real America" will love this movie. And, because it is set in Japan, Italy, and the UK, much of the rest of the world is going to have even more reason to be hot for it as well. And, unlike the first Cars, it even has a female character who is more than just a love interest and who seriously gets into the action.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 9:33 AM, catoismymotor wrote:

    With Cars I figured the critics on both coasts were expressing a deep dislike for what middle America cherishes. What self respecting NYC or LA critic would openly admit to liking a movie centered around NASCAR, small town life, and putting others before yourself? Cars takes place in a state of mind that is totally foreign to them. They fear and mock what they do not understand.

    Now we have Cars 2. I honestly believe it was like waiving a red cape in front of a miffed bull. I can hear them say collectively, "What? They dare to make another film after I dashed the previous Cars movie to pieces?! How dare they?! I will spare no venom in knocking down this affront to my sensabilities, and those of my colleagues. John Lassiter feel my sting!!!"

    Cars and Cars 2 were made for kids. It is that simple. There are enough adult elements to keep the parents engaged but that is as far as it should, and does, go. When I say this I don't mean to alienate the parents of little girls but you can't take a boy to see this movie and not think to yourself, "That truck is probably $40 at Target. That car is around $5. God, help us if he wants a race track." My parents used to do the same thing when they would take me to see the Star Wars movies ('77-'82). "What does a At-At cost? How much for the Millenium Falcon? The Land Speeder?", is the conversation they would have in whispers at the theater. John Lassiter, just like George Lucas, knows that if you can tie in toys with a movie you end up generating revenue from the movie from two directions. So, yeah, Mater is Jar-Jar Binks. But everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, over five years old disliked Jar-Jar. If this was not so we would have seen Jar-Jar based cartoon series and more toys surrounding the character.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 11:43 AM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    cato, exactly, we are muy simpatico on this.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 11:43 AM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    Though to his credit, Kenneth Turan of the LA Times loved it. He's an awesome critic though.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 12:40 PM, scottgeiger wrote:

    I usually dismiss the opinions of critics - they are often more wrong than right.

    But why is this you ask? (you did ask, right?)

    There are a few reasons why critics are "wrong". First, their job is not to critique movies (WHAT!? you say). Yes, their job is to help their media company sell more subscriptions. (cynical I know). They can help do this with snarky criticism and panning movies that may not rightly deserve it. Second, many critics come from an art and literature background. Now don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with either of those areas of study, but that tends to bias them towards more "high-minded" endeavors. Cars2 is definitely not "high-minded", but then it's not supposed to be - it's supposed to be fun. And that leads to the final reason, critics are not the target audience. Many people cannot put themselves "in the shoes" of the target audience; and that becomes even harder when you ask an adult to see a movie through the eyes of a child (easier if you have children yourself). So critics base their analysis on their own personal situation/view point. And that's the key - it's just their personal opinion...

    So in the end, ignore the critics. Go see a movie if it looks interesting to you and enjoy it if you like it.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 12:47 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    DTF,

    I love this quote from you, "Cars2 is Casablanca next to Shrek the Third." Amen. The first Shrek was glorious. The second was *meh*. And the third was abismal. It was sad to watch it slide like that.

    I am glad your daughter liked the movie. Being a dad is the best job.

    Cato

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 1:07 PM, Borbality wrote:

    LOL all I gotta say is New Star Wars movies. Some of the worst movies I've ever seen, but who cares what I think?

  • Report this Comment On July 01, 2011, at 1:06 AM, mhonarvar wrote:

    first one wasn't that amazing either...2nd one is just a lame attempt to stretch it out....cant wait for the third one though!

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