It’s hard to escape the deflating feeling that Disney’s “Lightyear” remained stubbornly Earthbound during its box office debut. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment that greeted the latest Pixar film’s $51 million opening weekend in North America.
For industry analysts, those lackluster ticket sales were baffling because Pixar had been box office royalty and “Lightyear,” a spinoff of the cosmic hit “Toy Story” franchise, landed critical acclaim. decent – but not euphoric. Plus, audiences (who awarded the film an “A-” CinemaScore”) seemed entertained by the otherworldly animated adventure, in which Chris Evans takes over from Tim Allen as the voice of Buzz Lightyear.
Granted, a $51 million opening weekend is far from a disaster; in fact, “Lightyear” landed one of the best debuts for a kid-friendly animated movie in the time of COVID. Family audiences have returned in spurts, but it’s a demographic that’s been largely absent during the pandemic. However, Disney was certainly hoping that the $200 million budget film would bring in more plays in its first weekend in theaters. For Pixar, “Lightyear” ranks among the studio’s lowest, behind 2017’s “Cars 3” ($53 million) and ahead of 2015’s “The Good Dinosaur” ($39 million) and 2020’s “Onward” ( $39 million). It’s also one of the few Pixar films that didn’t take the top spot at the domestic box office, landing in second place.
So what kept “Lightyear” from going on forever and beyond at the box office?
“[‘Lightyear’] runs into the limitations of derivative form,” says David A. Gross, who runs film consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research. “It’s still elite business, it’s just that it no longer defies gravity.”
One of those constraints is that “Lightyear” had an unusually confusing premise, which probably sounded a lot more catchy in Buena Vista’s boardrooms than it did on the film’s confusing marketing materials. Do you know Andy’s favorite action figure from “Toy Story”? No, not the cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks. The other. Well, it’s the movie about the fictional astronaut who (stay with us…) inspired the piece of plastic who later became best friends with Woody and Mr. Potato Head. Try explaining this to a 6 year old. Heck, try explaining that to an adult. With the exception of the character himself, “Lightyear” had only a tenuous connection to the four films in the popular kid-friendly franchise. And in turn, nostalgia wasn’t as powerful a force as Disney might have imagined.
“[The film’s] the marketing never clearly made the connection to Andy’s favorite toy until the last second. And they’ve been marketing this movie for a while,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro.
At the same time, Disney has spent the last two years putting Pixar films — “Soul” and “Turning Red” among them — directly on Disney+, which may have inadvertently conditioned people to expect see the latest releases from the home animation studio. “Lightyear,” the first Pixar film to hit the big screen since “Onward” in March 2020, may have been marked by this pandemic-era experience. Given muted word-of-mouth, ‘Lightyear’ has struggled to get people excited about going to the movies in the same vein as, say, ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ – a film that could have relied on its status brand but also managed to evolve the property in a more thoughtful way.
“Disney has trained many parents to expect Pixar movies at home,” says Robbins. “I wonder how much ‘Lightyear’ paid the price for that.”
For years, Disney has achieved massive commercial glory by diving into its storied vault to revive and remake old properties like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin.” The studio has also suffered high-profile misfires, like 2019’s live-action “Dumbo” and 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a spinoff set in a galaxy far, far away. “Lightyear” falls somewhere in between and serves as a final reminder that brand recognition certainly helps, but not all retreads have blockbuster potential. Box office pundits also point out that Disney, in some ways, has become a victim of its own box office success.
“Disney’s misses are sometimes better than other studios’ bestselling hits,” says Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock. “Have they spent too much? Most likely. But ‘Lightyear’ has all summer to play.
It helps that “Lightyear” doesn’t face noticeable competition among family audiences until Universal’s comic sequel “Minions: The Rise of Gru” opens on the big screen on July 1. return of the triumphs of “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Top Gun: Maverick”. Given that these movies proved that the box office is finally capable of accommodating more than one major film in a single weekend, there’s reason to believe there was room for “Lightyear “Fly higher.
“If a movie catches fire, people will go see it,” says Bock.
With “Lightyear,” it’s clear that the intergalactic adventure just didn’t get enough buzz.
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