Why isn't Lightyear taking off at the box office?

·5 min read
Lightyear. Illustrated | Disney, iStock

Lightyear is struggling to soar to infinity and beyond. So why hasn't this origin story generated the buzz Disney hoped?

The Toy Story spinoff from Pixar was expected to be one of the biggest hits of the summer movie season. Instead, it's been a box office disappointment, grossing $50 million domestically in its opening weekend — below projections of $70 million or more and far below the $120 million opening of Toy Story 4. It also had a big 65 percent drop in its second weekend, grossing $17.7 million. Experts say a variety of factors likely contributed to the disappointing showing.

The premise was confusing

For one, the premise was a tough sell, and it wasn't obvious from the trailers what Lightyear has to do with Toy Story. The film isn't a spinoff about the Buzz Lightyear from those films but instead a movie that the characters in the Toy Story universe would have gone to see.

Opening title cards in Lightyear lay that out, but the marketing didn't totally clarify the connection, and a Chris Evans tweet describing the movie as the "origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on" only added to the confusion.

"Families might have been confused about the film and that could have steered them away," CNN's Frank Pallotta noted. Indeed, Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins told Variety the Lightyear marketing "never made quite clear the connection to Andy's favorite toy until the last second," and Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told NBC News that families "may not have entirely made the Toy Story connection."

Audiences expect to see Pixar movies on Disney+ now

Lightyear was Pixar's first film released in theaters since March 2020, as the studio's previous three movies debuted directly on Disney+ for no additional fee. Experts say this may have diminished the Pixar brand or at least made consumers expect to see Lightyear on streaming, too.

"A lot of people did not see [Lightyear] because they have been trained to see Pixar movies on Disney+," Puck founding partner Matthew Belloni argued on The Town podcast. YouTuber and critic Dan Murrell also pointed to rising inflation and ongoing recession concerns, which may mean families were even more inclined to skip Lightyear "knowing that this movie is going to streaming."

Competition from Top Gun: Maverick, a film not expected to hit streaming for months, surely didn't help, not to mention Jurassic World Dominion. "Nobody could have predicted how well Top Gun: Maverick would still be doing," Ryan Scott noted on the Slashfilm Daily podcast.

It was a spinoff nobody asked for

At the end of the day, some analysts felt audiences just weren't interested in a Buzz Lightyear spinoff — especially one that's not actually about the Buzz Lightyear they know — and Forbes' Scott Mendelson compared the situation to when the Han Solo prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story was a box office disappointment in 2018.

"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," Mendelson wrote of Solo — and Lightyear may have suffered for similar reasons. Just like Solo replaced Harrison Ford with Alden Ehrenreich, something Lucasfilm would later decide was a mistake, Tim Allen was replaced as Buzz with Chris Evans. That decision sparked some backlash, and it could have contributed to a disconnect between Lightyear and the Toy Story films.

Plus, Lightyear's reviews were weaker than the Toy Story movies, with some critics arguing it lacked the magic of the main series without the entire toy ensemble. "Like all spin-offs, the Lightyear story is narrower now, Tim Allen's iconic voice has been replaced, and Woody is gone," David A. Gross wrote in the FranchiseRe box office newsletter, noting that with the exception of Minions, animated spinoffs generally haven't exceeded their predecessor at the box office.

Was the same-sex kiss a factor?

Lightyear featured the first same-sex kiss in a Pixar film, which led the movie to be banned in multiple countries. Might this have affected business in the U.S.? Some on the right have embraced that narrative, especially in light of Disney's recent battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted, "Buzz Lightyear went woke. The movie went broke."

To counter this notion, some pundits pointed out the presence of a same-sex couple in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness didn't prevent that film from grossing nearly $1 billion worldwide, nor has minor LGBTQ+ representation held back previous Disney hits like 2017's Beauty and the Beast.

But Boxoffice Pro analyst Shawn Robbins told The Hollywood Reporter the "unfortunate pushback over the film's same-gender relationship" should be taken into consideration, even if it wasn't the primary reason for the disappointing numbers, as this combined with previous Pixar movies being released on Disney+ may "have instilled a 'We'll watch it before letting our kids see it' mentality in some communities, particularly those with strict religious views."

Whether Lightyear performs well when it hits Disney+, the same way Encanto posted big streaming numbers after not being a massive hit theatrically, could clarify whether this was just an issue of getting audiences to turn out in theaters for Pixar — or whether pure lack of interest in the movie itself kept Lightyear grounded.

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