Or are there other reasons why the latest Pixar movie flopped?
From the moment Disney and Pixar announced Lightyear, a film centered around the Buzz Lightyear character from the world-famous Toy Story franchise in December 2020, it seemed like a film destined for success. The spin-off expands on a well-known piece of intellectual property, has an all-star cast (including Chris Evans and Keke Palmer, two of the hottest names in the industry right now), and boasts a hefty $200 million budget. Additionally, Disney’s decision to release the film in movie theaters rather than Disney+ (unlike the other three Pixar films released during the pandemic). This further suggested the studio’s confidence in Lightyear’s profitability.
As Lightyear’s box office statistics show, what works in theory doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. In its opening weekend, the film fell dangerously short of industry projections. Instead, Lightyear opened in second place with a meager $50.5 million, a figure not even large enough to outgross Jurassic World: Dominion’s second weekend gross.
The reasons for Lightyear’s failure at the box office are complex. Let’s be clear, though, the absurd notion that the film is too “woke,” aided by one of the most mind-numbing controversies in recent memory, is not one of them.
Let’s put the film in some context. The Lightyear controversy began a couple of weeks ago and relates to a scene early in the film that features two same-sex characters sharing a kiss. The scene, which only runs for a few seconds in a longer montage, instantly led to outrage on social media. This was mainly led by conservatives claiming Lightyear was an attempt by Disney to indoctrinate children and shape their beliefs. At least, I think that’s the controversy. The reasons for the backlash are about as airless as the backlash itself.
Regardless, the controversy has had effects. A school in Ontario, Canada canceled a field trip to see the film. A theater in Oklahoma posted a sign on their door, promising that they would attempt to fast-forward through the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene (the theater has since removed the sign). Some politicians have even assumed the role of box office analyst (unsurprisingly, they’re bad at this job as well) to tie the film’s financial failure with their ideological agendas. Actions like these, aided by their prominence on social media, actively contribute to the false narrative that Lightyear’s “wokeness” lead to lackluster box office results.
Lightyear is far from being too woke. For starters, Disney almost avoided including the controversial scene in the final cut altogether so they could release the film in as many territories as possible. The studio only re-evaluated their decision after receiving backlash from LGBTQIA+ employees, making Disney’s lacking intentions when it comes to adding inclusive characters and scenes to their films alarmingly clear. Furthermore, the implication that Lightyear is too woke implies that the film has some sort of soul–a reason to exist, an ideal to stand for. Watching mere minutes of the film will prove that’s most definitely not the case.
Lightyear is another thinly veiled cash-grab attempt by Disney. It joins a long list of movies that have no compelling reasons to exist (I’m looking at you, live-action remakes), aside from their financial prospects. The factor Disney didn’t count on with Lightyear is: it takes a lot more than a name for viewers to shell out their money.
There are a number of reasons for Lightyear’s box office failure, not the least of which is the film’s shoddy marketing. As absurd as it sounds, until a couple of weeks ago, no one actually knew what the film was about. Was it a spin-off of the Buzz Lightyear toy after the events of Toy Story 4? Was it the origin story of the real-life Buzz Lightyear?
The film’s actual premise is even more uninteresting than both of those suggestions. According to the film’s opening title card, Lightyear is the blockbuster, released in 1995, that Andy (the young boy from Toy Story) adored, inspiring him to buy the Buzz Lightyear toy that ignites the main franchise. The issue: nobody cares about that. People come to the Toy Story franchise for the toys themselves. I mean, it’s literally in the name.
As such, Disney’s assumption that Toy Story fans would show up for Lightyear is flawed for two reasons. One, the film’s attempt of replicating a blockbuster action film renders it inaccessible for younger audiences, whose parents may deem it too “scary” or “intense” for them. Two, it chases people who grew up with the Toy Story films away, because the film barely has anything to do with the franchise itself. The sad reality is that Buzz Lightyear doesn’t even need to be in Lightyear. Remove the character and you essentially get the same film.
Lightyear’s theatrical release didn’t do it any favors. This isn’t to say that Disney shouldn’t release their films in theaters. In fact, their deliberate attempt to make Pixar a streaming exclusive studio–barring audiences from seeing far better films like Turning Red or Soul theatrically in the process–is equal parts baffling, disheartening, and in poor taste. Releasing Lightyear–a movie that already has the look, premise and feel of a film that belongs on a streaming service–in a theatrical landscape currently dominated by high-profile, well-known franchise films like Top Gun: Maverick or Jurassic World: Dominion was a sure-fire way to solidify its failure. With those options also playing in cinemas, and limited moviegoer interest in the film itself, there are few people left to build an audience.
The truth is, the vast majority of the public claiming that Lightyear is too woke probably couldn’t care less about either of the concrete reasons for the film’s lackluster performance. After all, it’s easier to go viral igniting absurd controversy around a film than diving deep into its theoretical and situational flaws. But the real lesson Disney needs to learn from Lightyear’s box office results is that nostalgia doesn’t always sell. Pixar’s success stems from the studio’s ability to tell original, soulful and heartfelt stories that appeal to people of all ages and have something to say about the world. As Lightyear proves, when you get rid of those qualities, nothing remains–not even audiences.