You didn't mark your calendar, I'm sure, but today is an important day for Disney
If you've been following the state of Disney's non-Pixar releases, today would normally be a day to forget. Save for Lilo & Stitch -- and perhaps Chicken Little -- many of the recent in-house theatrical animation features from Disney have fallen flat. The sky wasn't really falling in Chicken Little's world, but it has certainly felt that way for Disney's homegrown fare.
I'm not going out on some crazy limb here. I don't see Meet the Robinsons breaking any kind of box-office record. Early reviews are mixed, and that's not a good thing, since critics often let up on the venom with animated films.
However, it will be interesting to see Pixar's influence on the movie. Disney's acquisition of Pixar last year wasn't just about making 100% off the computer-animation pioneer's future releases. It was also about straightening out Disney's own troubled animation studio.
For a company like Disney, where so much trickles down from a blockbuster -- from merchandising sales to theme-park attractions to eventual DVD and broadcasting rights -- having acquired Pixar at $7.5 billion could turn out to be bargain if it brings a spark back to the Big Mouse's animation studio. See, Pixar heads were put in charge of both studios after last year's merger was completed. If you look really hard, you may see a bit of that crossover handiwork in Meet the Robinsons over the weekend.
In fact, a New York Times interview (registration required) earlier this month with Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter revealed Pixar's influence on the new Disney movie. After sitting in on an initial screening last year, Lasseter let the film's director know, in a six-hour meeting, what he didn't like. The villain wasn't menacing enough, for one. And a story about an orphaned boy using a time machine to reconnect with his mother should tug at the heart a little more.
Over the months that followed, 60% of the film was cut. That doesn't come cheap for a high-end studio like Disney.
Time after time machine
Will the changes be enough? Probably not. The market used to bid up Pixar's shares in anticipation of a hit, but that's not happening with Disney shares. Sure, Disney is a lot like Viacom
Either way, don't read too much into what should be ordinary numbers for Meet the Robinsons over the weekend. Better indications will come when Disney-animated projects including American Dog and The Frog Princess are released over the next couple of years. Lasseter and his Pixar brain trust have gotten into those projects earlier in the development process, so you should be able to dust those flicks for fingerprints and find evidence of Lasseter and president Ed Catmull all over them.
Maybe the Disney studio will never match what's happening on the Pixar side. After all, it's hard to beat the marquee brand in theatrical animation that just happens to be six-for-six at the plate. Disney's studio may never even achieve the success of rival DreamWorks Animation
Think about it. Disney's studio profits were doing just fine when the company was simply skimming 50% off the Pixar films. If Lasseter is able to fix Disney's own storied studio, it won't be a matter of hitting pay dirt every 12-18 months with a Pixar title. We'll be talking about a reborn brand with a pair of box-office dynamos annually.
That's the plan over at DreamWorks Animation -- it wants to release an original film and a proven sequel every single year. Disney, though, has plenty of projects in the works, so it doesn't need to tap the sequel spigot just yet. OK, so there's the Toy Story franchise, but you can hardly blame Disney for making an exception there.
Getting noticed in a crowd
The animation field has gotten a bit crowded in recent years. It's not just Disney-Pixar vs. DreamWorks Animation anymore. News Corp.'s
Speaking of Time Warner, it was shabby timing on Disney's part to have its animated flick opening a week after Warner's TMNT revival hit the silver screen. Animated action geared toward a young male audience may not command enough of a niche to support back-to-back winners.
That's OK, though. Today is really just the first step of what promises to be a long journey for Pixar to restore the Disney brand. Like any artwork-restoration project, things can get messy at first, but it's usually worth the effort in the end.
So forget about using that time machine to travel to the past. The real trick to Meet the Robinsons will be snagging that contraption to see what the future looks like.
DreamWorks Animation, Time Warner, and Disney are all Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter recommendations. The way the stock picking-service's selections have fared, you'll wish that you'd hopped on that time machine and bought alongside David and Tom Gardner. But you can see what new picks have been recommended recently, so you can get in on the future action, just by taking a free 30-day trial here.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a sucker for quality animation. He owns shares of Disney and DreamWorks Animation. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.