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‘Inside Out 2’ fills Disney with joy, even if its culture-war critics stay angry

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — As emotions go, Disney’s loudest critics might sound angry, but “Inside Out 2” is bringing the studio nothing but joy.

The Walt Disney Co. has often found itself cast as a reluctant participant in the culture wars, yielding occasional calls for boycotts and proclamations the company has become “too woke.” Yet the explosive box-office success of “Inside Out 2” provides necessary perspective about a vast audience that remains hungry for Disney content, certainly enough to generate a major hit.

Granted, those who regularly rail against Disney – which was drawn into a political battle with Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, beginning in 2022 over the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill – have sought to rationalize the performance of the Pixar sequel, insisting its plot doesn’t toe the “woke” line the way something like the studio’s latest “Star Wars” series, “The Acolyte,” does. Notably, a review-bombing campaign has been waged against the latter, depressing its score on the critic-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes to almost comical levels.

Look a little closer, though, and “Inside Out 2” features an effortless emphasis on values like diversity and inclusion that have helped make Disney a target. The Disney unit behind it, Pixar, also enjoyed a less-ostentatious box-office win last summer with “Elemental,” a movie that used an allegorical relationship between characters made up of fire and water to explore bigotry, the immigrant experience, and a love story about overcoming differences.

Whatever the reason – and with the sequel coming nine years after the original, pent-up demand is surely a part – there’s no denying “Inside Out 2’s” results, with the movie adding $100 million at the North American box office during its second weekend – a record for an animated film – bringing its domestic total to $355 million, eclipsing “Dune: Part Two” as the year’s top movie in just 10 days of release.

Worldwide, the film’s haul has ballooned to nearly $725 million. “Inside Out 2” will almost surely join the increasingly rare list of $1 billion-plus grossers since the Covid outbreak, which consists of sequels to “Avatar,” “Top Gun,” “Spider-Man” and “Jurassic World” as well as “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”

It’s worth noting Disney has consciously sought to shy away from engaging in political battles, with CEO Robert Iger, who rejoined the company in that capacity in 2022, telling CNBC in November, ““We have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.”

In essence, Iger simply stated the obvious: That Disney, like any major corporation, prioritizes its profits and stock price, which means trying not to alienate potential customers, no matter how eager some of them are to be offended. Disney employees represent another constituency, which offers some context regarding why former CEO Bob Chapek finally chose, belatedly and under pressure from them, to criticize Florida.

“Inside Out 2” certainly looks like a triumph for Iger’s strategy, while still conveying messages in a more subtle (and for those seeking any opportunity to pounce, less inflammatory) manner.

Indeed, summer 2024 is shaping up to be a banner one for Disney, with the superhero satire “Deadpool & Wolverine” expected to another major attraction when the film opens in July, catering to an R-rated crowd that underscores the demographic reach of its assorted assets.

That doesn’t mean those who have turned Disney’s Mouse ears into targets will be less inclined to rail against something like “The Acolyte,” distorting what the “Star Wars” show does and doesn’t do in the process.

It’s a reminder, though, that plenty of people still see in the Disney name the ideal of entertainment that they can share with loved ones, and that as long as the studio fulfills that implied contract, woke or otherwise, Mickey and friends won’t be going broke anytime soon.

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