Disney is a machine, and Pixar is a creative powerhouse. So when these two combine, especially around a much-loved character from a much loved franchise, it is a sure-fire hit. Right? Right? Well, apparently not, as they have just discovered with Lightyear.
But what the hell happened? How did it miss so badly? It’s like a recipe where, at first glance, all the best ingredients are there and yet it comes out of the oven tasting bad and gets sent back to the kitchen by paying customers.
Now the dust has settled we take a took at Lightyear and tried to work out what went wrong. As far as we can tell, Lightyear found itself trapped in the perfect storm of idiocy, arrogance, and politics.
Pixar movies always had a strange cinematic power. They pulled in non-families to family movies. The mix of delightful family entertainment, but frequently some heavyweight themes, and some knowing gags aimed at grown-ups, meant that people without children also turned out for them.
They were also events. They didn’t come along too often so when a new Pixar movie was on the way, there was buzz.
However then the pandemic hit. Disney+ was still in it’s infancy and crying out for content with Marvel and Star Wars content delayed by COVID restrictions. Disney turned to Pixar and after protests from Pixar, their content was pushed onto the streaming channel.
Soul, Luca and Turning Red were accompanied by Disney Animation Studios efforts Raya And The Last Dragon and Encanto direct to streaming.
This had an effect on the audience. It is simply a fact of parenthood that watching a movie at home these days, as a family, is a lot simpler, cheaper and easier than a trip to a movie theatre with young children.
Release your biggest hits directly into people’s homes for over two years and also reduce cinematic exhibition windows from three months to a month and a half, and you are training audiences to have different expectations and behaviours.
When Lightyear launched to $50 million, instead of an expected $70 million to $85 million, part of the post-mortem pointed to noticeably light engagement with families. Around 40% of tickets were estimated to have been sold to families, whereas for Sonic The Hedgehog 2 that was over 60%. So families were staying at home.
Why? Partially because Disney had trained them to do this, and partly due to other reasons that we will touch on next. It was ignorance of these potential effects that was the first nail in the coffin for Lightyear.
So there was idiocy around what they had trained the market to do within Disney/Pixar, and closely related was arrogance that it wouldn’t matter. This was Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story fame, wasn’t it? A cinematic juggernaut was assured. Only it wasn’t Buzz. Not to audiences.
There was confusion as to how the movie was related to the iconic Toy Story franchise. The iconic character became the source of that confusion himself. Buzz Lightyear was a toy, voiced by Tim Allen. This time, the Space Ranger was voiced by Chris Evans and wasn’t a toy.
Confuse a potential audience where the dinosaur loving kids have Jurassic World: Dominion on one side and parents have the runaway hit that is Top Gun: Maverick on the other side and you are already scrapping for eyeballs. Doing this while pushing a product that your audience doesn’t quite “get” is fighting with one hand tied behind your back.
To not have worked harder on the message here, thinking you don’t have to because of the kids and the brand, is arrogance. Trying to pretend that Pixar is anything like the naturally creative centre of excellence it was under John “The Hugger” Lasseter is also arrogance. He was notoriously focussed on quality.
The recasting of the lead role cannot have helped. Why did this happen? There are suspicions.
Tim Allen is a rare beast in modern Hollywood, in that he is openly conservative. Chris Evans is a progressive darling, with his social media a non-stop feed of “right-on” talking points that is much more in tune with how Hollywood likes to view itself.
Did this contribute to the casting decision? Many speculated that it did. This leads us on to the final pillar in Disney/Pixar’s perfect storm of failure.
Disney has been making a complete mess of politics lately, generally by getting overtly involved in them in the first place. Many modern companies fail to notice that Twitter is not the real world, and that very vocal and active groups within their own staff do not necessarily represent the views of the majority. Disney was no exception.
It’s actions around the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida may have appealed to some groups, but it had the opposite effects on other groups. The political fallouts are well documented. We covered them extensively back in April more than once.
What this noise did is put the organisation firmly on the radar of “small c” conservative families in core markets such as across the Midwest. Their child protection antennae were up and scanning.
When a same-gender kiss scene led to the movie being banned in 14 countries, a minor point began to become something else, yet another battleground in the ongoing culture war as even politicians weighed in. U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is the minority ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and has 2.8 million followers, tweeted June 21:
“Buzz Lightyear went woke. Disney went broke.”
A verified Twitter account for the GOP Judiciary Committee boasting more than 223,000 followers followed by tweeting:
“Make Toy Story great again.”
You or I would hope that politicians had better things to do, what with inflation climbing, food and fuel shortages looming and a war raging to the East… but this is 2022. This noise was picked up by families already trained to stay at home and wait for Disney+. This gave them yet another reason not venture out to the theatre.
According to Comscore regional data Lightyear did under-index by a large margin in the Midwest just three years after Toy Story 4 landed bang in the middle of the normal range. Disney is at pains to try and play down the political angle. All the data says otherwise.
A Ray Of Disney Hope?
All may not be lost for Disney, Pixar and Lightyear. In 2007, Pixar’s Ratatouille opened to just $47 million and everyone asked if the Pixar party was over. The movie proved to have long, long legs and pushed itself to $206.4 million domestically and $626.5 million globally.
Toy Story 4 opened to $118 million domestically against tracking for $140 million. Again, long legs proved undefeated as it went on to gross $1 billion at the global box office.
Will Lightyear keep plugging away and prove those predicting its demise flat out wrong?