It’s hard to escape the deflating sense that Disney’s “Lightyear” has remained stubbornly Earth-bound in its box office debut. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment that’s greeted the latest Pixar film’s so-so $51 million opening weekend in North America.
For industry analysts, those lackluster ticket sales were confounding because Pixar had been box office royalty and “Lightyear,” a spinoff of the cosmically successful “Toy Story” franchise, landed decent — though not euphoric — reviews. Moreover, audiences (who awarded the film an “A-” CinemaScore”) seemed to be entertained by the animated otherworldly adventure, in which Chris Evans takes over from Tim Allen as the voice of Buzz Lightyear.
To be sure, a $51 million opening weekend is far from catastrophic; in fact, “Lightyear” landed one of the best debuts for an animated kid friendly film in COVID times. Family audiences have returned in fits and starts, but it’s a demographic that’s been largely absent during the pandemic. However, Disney certainly hoped the $200 million-budgeted movie would rake in more coinage in its first weekend in theaters. For Pixar, “Lightyear” ranks as one of the studio’s lower starts, 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 rare Pixar films to not take the top spot at the domestic box office, landing in second place.
So what prevented “Lightyear” from going to infinity and beyond at the box office?
“[‘Lightyear’] is running into the limitations of the spin-off form,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “This is still elite business, it’s just no longer defying gravity.”
One of those constraints is that “Lightyear” had an unusually confusing premise, one that probably sounded a lot catchier in Buena Vista boardrooms than it did on the movie’s puzzling marketing materials. You know Andy’s favorite action-figure from “Toy Story”? No, not the cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks. The other one. Well, this is the movie about the fictional astronaut that (stay with us…) inspired the piece of plastic who later became best friends with Woody and Mr. Potato Head. Try explaining that to a 6-year-old. Heck, try explaining that to an adult. Except for the character itself, “Lightyear” had only a tenuous connection to the four films in the popular kid-friendly franchise. And in turn, nostalgia was not as potent a force as Disney may have imagined.
“[The film’s] marketing never made quite clear the connection to Andy’s favorite toy until the last second. And they’ve been marketing this movie for a while,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro.
At the same time, Disney spent the last two years putting Pixar movies — “Soul” and “Turning Red” among them — directly on Disney+, which may have inadvertently conditioned people to expect to see the animation studio’s newest releases at home. “Lightyear,” the first Pixar movie to play on the big screen since “Onward” in March 2020, may have been singed by that pandemic-era experiment. Given muted word-of-mouth, “Lightyear” struggled to excite people to go to theaters in the same vein as, say, “Top Gun: Maverick” — a movie that could have relied on its status as a name-brand but also managed to more thoughtfully evolve the property.
“Disney has trained a lot of parents to expect Pixar movies at home,” Robbins says. “I wonder how much ‘Lightyear’ paid the price for that.”
For years, Disney has achieved massive commercial glory by dipping into its storied vault to revive and remake old properties like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” The studio has also sustained some 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 the latest reminder that brand recognition is certainly helpful, but not every retread has blockbuster potential. Box office experts also emphasize that Disney, in some ways, has become the victim of its own success at the box office.
“Disney’s misses are sometimes better than other studio’s best hits,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Did they spend too much? Probably. But ‘Lightyear’ has all summer to play out.”
It helps that “Lightyear” won’t face notable competition among family audiences until Universal’s cartooned sequel “Minions: The Rise of Gru” opens on the big screen on July 1. It’s already been a sizzling summer at multiplexes with the back-to-back triumphs of “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” Since those films proved the box office is finally able to accommodate more than one major movie in a single weekend, there’s reason to believe there was room for “Lightyear” to fly higher.
“If a film catches fire, people are going to go see it,” says Bock.
With “Lightyear,” it’s clear the intergalactic adventure just didn’t have enough buzz.
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