Disney (DIS 0.42%) ruled the box office in 2019, but it's a different story this year. Onward -- the latest theatrical release from its Pixar hit factory -- fell woefully short of expectations over its opening weekend, ringing up roughly $40 million in domestic ticket sales. 

It's not a surprise to see the film fail to live up to Pixar's recent releases during their strong debut weekends. Toy Story 4 opened to $121 million last year and Incredibles 2 raised the bar to $183 million the year before that. Those films came from established franchises, and Pixar sequels will understandably fare better with their entrenched fan bases. Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2 also happened to open in mid-June, during the peak summertime blockbuster season.

Pixar's last nonsequel release was Coco, and it opened to a mere $51 million despite debuting during the seasonally potent Thanksgiving holiday. No one considers Coco a dud. However, with some predicting that Onward would deliver about $50 million in box office receipts at multiplexes across the country, it is initially a letdown. Fortunately for Disney, there's a big difference between the initial grade and the final report card.

Two brothers on a quest to bring back their father for a single day, standing in front of their town.

Image source: Disney.

On a quest

It would be wrong to sugarcoat the mere $40 million in domestic ticket sales that Onward delivered over the weekend. The only film to fare worse out of the gate for Pixar over the past decade -- The Good Dinosaur in 2015 -- delivered just $39.2 million at the box office, and it's considered the first Pixar bomb. Making matters worse this time around, ticket prices have been inching higher over the past few years. In other words, fewer people saw Onward this past weekend than caught The Good Dinosaur in its debut five years earlier.

You can't blame Disney for the weak start -- at least not yet. With the number of U.S. coronavirus cases growing and media coverage intensifying, it's easy to see why some families would choose to stay away from potentially crowded theaters. Most of the leading multiplex operators find their shares trading at multiyear lows these days.

We will have to see how the next few weeks play out. Onward is receiving generally positive reviews, with 86% of film critics and 96% of audiences recommending the computer-animated release according to ratings aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. If the strong word of mouth holds up, we should see Onward hold up better in the coming weeks. 

Even if Onward ultimately delivers an uninspiring theatrical run, that doesn't mean that the flick was a failure. Disney's ecosystem has evolved to the point where there are now several digital and physical release opportunities to drum up a larger fan base for the property. Last November's successful launch of Disney+ means that inevitably a larger audience will be exposed to Onward

This is a tough time for Disney. The current climate isn't kind to consumer discretionary stocks with business models that require folks to gather in large groups. But the funk won't last forever, and eventually it will be time for Disney to move "onward," too.