The box office of Pixar’s new film Lightyear has fallen just a little short – and we’ve got a few thoughts as to why that might be.

It seems odd to be having a conversation about a film falling short at the box office when its opening weekend has seen it take in over $50m in America alone. Yet here we are: Pixar’s latest film, Lightyear, has opened to $51m in the US, some way short of the predicted $70m it was expected to haul in. Even that prediction was conservative, when you consider that Lightyear spins out of the Toy Story saga, and the fourth of those movies claimed over $120m on its own opening weekend.

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So what’s gone (slightly) wrong here? Reviews for Lightyear weren’t exactly off the chart, but there was little in them to suggest that Pixar and Disney had slightly misread the box office room. Yet there’s little getting around the fact that Pixar’s attempts to annex its most popular franchise has misfired a little. It’s not as if it was a side project for the studio either. This was no New Mutants to the X-Men films. This is a blockbuster movie with a reported $200m price tag.

Yet this summer, it’s not quite ignited.

And perhaps that’s the starting point. We’re in a summer season where there’s barely a film you can go and see that doesn’t benefit from some degree of foreknowledge. But even so, Lightyear isn’t quite in that mould. It doesn’t wrap itself in knots to tie itself to other things.

Instead, it’s a slightly forced idea of a prequel, that loosely ties into the first Toy Story film. We’re told at the start of the movie that this is the film Andy from the 1995 animated classic watched, that made him want to get a Buzz Lightyear action toy. Hence, we’re introduced to the ‘real’ Buzz Lightyear, which in turn gets around the fact that Chris Evans is voicing him this time around, and not Tim Allen.

That it works as a logical fudge to get a prequel/spin-off moving is undeniable. The idea holds water. But it doesn’t get around the fact that, well, it’s still a fudge. I read for years just how difficult Pixar and Disney animation pitch meetings were supposed to be, and the hoops you had to get through to get a film off the ground. You needed an amazing idea to impress the Brain Trust, and even then, it’d be rigorously pulled in all sorts of directions before it made it to the screen.

That may have been the case here, but it doesn’t feel like it. Lightyear – and I quite liked the film – feels like product. It feels like it’s been reverse-engineered. As if someone said here’s a way we can extend the Toy Story saga, now go and make it work.

Lightyear

Director Angus MacLane (not pictured) is absolutely no slouch, and I’ve enjoyed his work before, as I enjoyed it again here. But there’s a corporate cynicism to the very idea of the movie, and whilst the first half of Lightyear does much to rid that thought from my head, by the time the big action stuff took hold, it was front and centre again.

No film needs to exist, of course (apart from Con Air), but this one feels like it shouldn’t have come out of Pixar. The very idea of the film feels like one of those old straight to DVD Disney sequels we used to take the piss out of. And now it’s become a major Pixar release.

With no disrespect to some of the other major American animation studios, Lightyear feels like one of their films more than it does Pixar. Not by the measurement of the animation standards, which are off the chart as always. But it’s just so unessential. It’s padding. It’s okay. But it’s not what Pixar used to be.

The slight risk here is that it’s gone with a very different visual approach and tone to the Toy Story films, and perhaps that’s what’s put some off. This clearly isn’t Toy Story, even though its links are obvious. After audiences went with Toy Story 4, perhaps this one was a leap too far?

That said, the competition has proven incredibly fierce, and that’s made a mark too. Disney marketing experts will have long been aware that Jurassic World Dominion was landing the week before, and reasonably assumed that there was room for both films (even though Dominion was always going to chomp a slice of the family movie ticket spend). Still, the holdover business enjoyed by Jurassic 6 has been high. Sure, the film had a 60% drop-off from last weekend, but the number from then was so high, it meant that Jurassic had enough in the tank to hold off Lightyear and hold onto top spot. Yep, Lightyear hasn’t even opened at number one.

Jurassic World Dominion logo

Both of those films have been significantly affected though by the stunning success of Top Gun: Maverick. That’s a movie whose holdover business is incredible, and as it closes in on half a billion dollars at the US box office alone, it already the biggest movie of 2022. A month on, it had a weekend gross of $44m. Lightyear’s only just got past that on its opening. You wouldn’t necessarily think there’s much crossover of audience there, but the wide age demographic I saw coming out of the Top Gun sequel over the weekend suggests there may – anecdotally – be some.

And sure, Lightyear is going to have legs and carry on drawing people in across the summer. Even then though, the Minions sequel isn’t far behind. Given the ripple of excitement from the young audience before the screening of Lightyear I was in over the weekend, it’d be folly to bet against that. There may be tough times still ahead.

The idealistic reason though why Lightyear may have fallen short, commercially, is the one I least believe, but most want to. That it’s Pixar’s smallest swing in recent memory. Notably too, the film marks the first in four movies from Pixar that have been awarded a full cinema release. Now appreciating there were circumstances that were well out of Disney and Pixar’s control, it’s still something that the least interesting of the last four Pixar movies is the one to make it to cinemas.

Pixar has a track record in taking a story and bunch of characters others may not have gambled on, and turning them into huge hits. It built its name in the first place off the back of that. It’s thus been hugely frustrating to see it away from its natural home: the cinema.

Turning Red, from Pixar

Turning Red, from Pixar

Sure, Turning Red, Luca and Soul may well have gone on to underperform at the box office had they enjoyed a full release. But they didn’t even get to try, and instead were directed immediately to Disney+. Lightyear, the one that feels most at home as a streaming choice, got the cinema screens.

There’s a tiny bit of my head that wonders if Pixar’s name isn’t quite – and this is unfair, granted – the magic that it once was? Nobody was doing what Pixar was able to do, but that the cautiousness over its recent release plans has done it just a little damage.

I don’t fully buy it, but I do wonder still if its reticence has backfired just slightly. I don’t think many people could argue with the circumstances that led to Soul and Luca heading straight to streaming. Turning Red though feels like a huge missed opportunity.

But back to Lightyear. Nobody is going to lose money here, and the film will be eagerly rewatched time and time again when it does eventually land on the Disney+ platform. For the minute though, even though Andy might have settled on Lightyear as his favourite movie, some 32 years ago, fewer than expected seem to be sharing his love for it.

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