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Why Lightyear Bombed At The Box Office

Pixar's "Lightyear" is experiencing some turbulence at the box office. First announced in 2020 during Disney Investor Day, the "Toy Story" spin-off seemed to be on track to be another win for the studio behind "Ratatouille" and "Wall-E." The character of Buzz Lightyear (then voiced by Tim Allen) first appeared in "Toy Story," Pixar's debut feature film. While the "Toy Story" series spawned several successful sequels, the character of Buzz Lightyear himself would go on to headline his own direct-to-video spin-off movie and even an animated series called "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command" that ran for over 60 episodes, more than proving the character's popularity. 

Seeing as the "Toy Story" franchise has grossed over $3 billion worldwide and has already successfully spawned other Buzz Lightyear spin-offs, it may come as a surprise that "Lightyear" has been far from a success. Variety reports that the $200 million film (and that doesn't even account for the marketing budget) opened to a disappointingly low $51 million box office, a far cry from the $121 million opening haul of "Toy Story 4" (via Bloomberg). On the critical front, the film holds a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. That is far from a flop, but it does make it the lowest-rated film in the franchise.

A flurry of confusion and indifference began to pile up shortly before the film's release. Coupled with an unfortunate release date and a lack of distinct identity, "Lightyear" serves as a cautionary tale for Disney that audiences won't just show up for anything Pixar. 

Lightyear's marketing caused confusion

Prospective audiences were left scratching their heads when "Lightyear" was announced in 2020. "Captain America" star Chris Evans was brought on board to voice the titular character, replacing Tim Allen, who had been playing the space ranger in the "Toy Story" series since 1995. Evans' casting announcement caused significant confusion, which seemingly lead to the actor issuing a tweet that stated, "This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on." However, when audiences sat down to watch the film, they were greeted with on-screen text that revealed that "Lightyear" is actually the film that Andy (John Morris), the owner of the Buzz Lightyear action figure from "Toy Story," saw in 1995. Confused? So were we. In his negative review, Looper's Alistair Ryder criticized the contrived setup used to justify the film's existence.

It certainly didn't help that the film's marketing campaign failed to convey the tone of "Lightyear." While Pixar has always been a studio that has created films for children and young adults, they're largely beloved by viewers of all ages. "Lightyear," on the other hand, appeared to be a film mostly dedicated to the older crowd. The film's initial teaser relied heavily on David Bowie's "Starman" and pitched itself as a throwback space opera inspired by the films of '80s, a direction that implied it was tugging on the nostalgia of those who remember the decade. Some speculated that the film would be Pixar's first PG-13 project, which didn't end up being the case. However, the notion that it could have been, alongside the film's confusing premise and hit-and-miss marketing, certainly alienated viewers during opening weekend, especially with more interesting projects in theaters.

The Toy Story spin-off faced severe competition

The premise of "Lightyear" may have been confusing but Pixar's name still holds weight, which poised the film to deliver the box office goods. Perhaps that would have happened if the "Toy Story" spin-off opened earlier this year. "Lightyear" hit theaters on June 17, Father's Day weekend. While that slot may have been strategic for Pixar and Disney when the animated project was announced in 2020, the studios clearly underestimated their competition. "Lightyear" opened a week after "Jurassic World Dominion," the long-awaited finale to the "Jurassic" saga. Deadline reports that the dinosaur bonanza raked in $58.6 million on Father's Day weekend, trumping the $51 million debut of "Lightyear." The film also faced fierce competition from "Top Gun: Maverick," which brought in a whopping $44 million, making it the second-highest fourth-weekend haul since "Avatar" (via Movie Web).

Both "Dominion" and "Maverick" cater far more to the Father's Day crowd than "Lightyear." While "Dominion" was riddled with issues, the "Jurassic World" franchise will always have a hold over general audiences. Then there's the continued runaway success of "Maverick." The sequel to the 1986 hit has become a cultural phenomenon, prompting repeat viewings from some audience members. The Tom Cruise-led sequel is far more "dad-centric" than "Lightyear." It is a bigger draw for those looking for nostalgia and its poignant story and jaw-dropping action sequences appeal more to the grown-up crowd. In fact, audiences over 35 have been showing up in droves to see Maverick's sophomore outing (via IndieWire).

While the character of Buzz Lightyear certainly holds his own weight in terms of nostalgia, the Pixar animated epic just doesn't seem to have been the right choice for Father's Day weekend.

Where is Lightyear (& Pixar's) identity?

Taking a look at Pixar's recent slate of films, "Lightyear" notably stands out as the sole IP-centric project since 2019's "Toy Story 4." Pixar's last proper theatrical release was "Onward," which underperformed due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. During the pandemic, Disney sent "Soul," "Luca," and "Turning Red” straight to Disney+, much to the chagrin of Pixar employees (via Insider). Each of those three original films received near-unanimous acclaim — they all boast a Rotten Tomatoes score of over 90% — and have become pop culture phenomenons in their own right. It speaks volumes that Disney sent some of Pixar's most interesting films in recent memory ostensibly direct-to-video, diluting the brand which is (mostly) synonymous with quality. If modern audiences associate Pixar with Disney+, they'll be hard pressed to spend the time heading to the theaters when they know "Lightyear" will be on the service sooner rather than later.

To that end, amidst the confusion, viewers seem more interested in Pixar's original stories. Films like "Turning Red" have sparked cultural conversations, echoing the impact of the studio's earlier projects like "Inside Out" and "Ratatouille." On the other hand, the conversations around "Lightyear" have largely focused on, as David Sims wrote in his review for The Atlantic, the fact that, "Hollywood is so lost in the rabbit holes of its own intellectual property that it's cooking up origin stories for fictional toys." 

Despite focusing on a beloved character and featuring an A-list voice cast, "Lightyear" failed to launch the moment Pixar and Disney assumed audiences would show up just because it was a "Toy Story" spin-off.