Lightyear, Pixar’s first full-throated global theatrical release since Onward in March of 2020, opened with a mediocre $50 million over its Fri-Sun frame and around $55 million over the Juneteenth holiday weekend. That would be a slight miss even for a straight-up Pixar original, let alone a film that was sold as essentially Toy Story 4.5 or Toy Story 0.5. It’s a stand-alone, disconnected original story prequel for the Buzz Lightyear character, presented as “the movie Andy watched in 1995 that made him a fan of Buzz Lightyear.”
Fine, whatever, but it’s also a close approximation to Solo: A Star Wars Story which stumbled hard four years ago ($394 million on a $275 million budget) and essentially put the kibosh on (post-Rise of Skywalker) future Star Wars theatricals. Likewise, the domestic debut was soft but the global launch ($84 million) is the killing blow.
The fear is that Bob Chapek will see this as a referendum on Pixar’s theatrical potential and officially designate the brand as a Disney+ property. Both Toy Story 4 and Frozen II (which nabbed $130 million from a $40 million Friday) overcame my comparatively bearish concerns and Disney’s theatrical releases were (mostly) leggy throughout 2021. However, even a run like Monsters University ($272 million from an $82 million debut) gets Lightyear to “just” $170 million domestic, while a performance closer to Cars 2 ($191 million/$64 million) and Cars 3 ($153/$54 million) gets it to $145-$155 million domestic.
Even legs like the last two Toy Story films ($430 million/$120 million and $415 million/$110 million) and Frozen II ($477 million/$130 million) gets it to “just” over/under $185 million. A crash akin to The Good Dinosaur ($127 million from a $55 million Wed-Sun debut) gets it to around $125-$130 million. The reviews are decent, audiences generally like it and there is little “big” animated competition after Minions 2.
It wasn’t online controversy over a same-sex kiss between two married non-white grandmothers. Jurassic World Dominion and Doctor Strange 2 both have non-white lesbian characters, with DeWanda Wise being a major character in the former. Nobody cares that Patricia Heaton accused Disney of castrating Buzz Lightyear via swapping out Tim Allen for Chris Evans. The loss of the marquee actor associated with the character may not have helped, just as Kathleen Kennedy might argue that swapping Harrison Ford for Alden Ehrenreich (great actor, rent Beautiful Creatures) was an issue for Solo.
With Solo, nobody wanted a prequel origin story action comedy based on the co-lead of an established cinematic brand featuring a different (and mostly unknown) actor in the role. It wasn’t Star Wars fatigue, it wasn’t “bad marketing,” and it wasn’t because online trolls spiked the SEO-driven narrative for the acclaimed, crowd-pleasing (an A from Cinemascore) $1.33 billion-grossing The Last Jedi.
Two years of Disney teaching its consumers to watch its big-budget tentpoles “for free” or “at home to own for the price of a few tickets” on Disney+ is exactly the long-term problem I warned it would be. When you offer acclaimed, high-quality Pixar flicks at home but then offer the one that (while well-reviewed) is generally considered to be inferior and pitched more at adults in theaters, families might just decide to wait until Minions: The Rise of Gru in two weeks or Thor: Love and Thunder in three weeks.
When you make “When will this be available on streaming?” the first big question for your big movie, you’re shooting yourself in the foot theatrically. We may discover by the end of 2022 that Disney’s theatrical power is entirely tied to Marvel, Avatar and periodic Star Wars movies while Disney+ is entirely dependent on MCU shows, Lucasfilm nostalgia and “theatrical” Disney toons.
The film may have been greenlit back in 2019 as a “safe, IP-centric cash-in” following a slew of original, inclusive and/or less commercially surefire Pixar flicks. Then Covid came along and Bob Chapek, wanting to keep the Disney+ train running at full steam, sent not just Soul in Christmas 2020 but also Luca in summer 2021 and Turning Red in April of 2022 to Disney+.
Throw in the compromised theatrical releases for Raya and the Last Dragon (with a concurrent Disney+ Premier Access option) and Encanto (on Disney+ in just 31 days), and it’s cruelly ironic that Lightyear, a white guy’s heroic journey/prequel origin story flick, is Disney’s first conventional animated theatrical release for a non-Fox toon in over two years. That it’s underperforming is even crueler, especially with the potential for “wrong lessons” being learned.
However, the simplest explanation is that Lightyear stumbled theatrically because theatrical audiences didn’t want to see it.