Pixar’s Lightyear Gambit

Photo: Pixar

With the computer-animated spinoff Lightyear, Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios is looking to pull off the intellectual-property version of its hero Buzz Lightyear’s famous rallying cry, To infinity and beyond! That is, to create a new movie franchise around an action figure based on a fictional movie character in another animated franchise. To create a kind of feedback loop where movie merch becomes its own movie only to sell more merch. In the film’s opening moments, a title card explains Lightyear’s meta-narrative relationship to the mid-’90s blockbuster Toy Story and its three multibillion-dollar-grossing sequels: “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”

But viewed another way, Lightyear is being granted the type of blastoff that has eluded every other Pixar release dating back to February 2020. On the heels of its coming-of-age fantasy Luca, the existential dramedy Soul, and the metamorphic teen romp Turning Red — all of which were sent straight to streaming on Disney+ — Lightyear arrives as the studio division’s first feature to reach the inside of a movie theater since the earliest days of pandemic onset. (The movie underperformed in its first weekend with $51 million, falling short of its projected $71 million debut.)

Over the last two years, reports of increasing frustration among Pixar’s rank-and-file animators have bubbled up in the industry press. “We don’t want to be a title just on Disney+,” an unnamed Pixar staffer told Business Insider. “These movies are crafted for the big screen. We want you to watch these movies with no distractions, no looking at your phones.” Moreover, with its 23 Academy Awards and long cultural association with such original — even oddball — animated classics as Up, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, the studio is synonymous with a certain cinematic excellence. And according to an animation insider who spoke to Vulture on condition of anonymity, there is no shortage of bruised feelings inside Pixar’s Emeryville, California, campus over what some employees perceive as the dismissive use of their work to drive up subscriptions to Disney’s OTT platform. “Pixar guys are sensitive,” says the person. “They’re artistes. They play by different rules. They don’t like to feel they’re cogs in the Hollywood machine.” (Disney did not respond to Vulture’s request for comment from Kareem Daniel, the studio’s chairman of media and entertainment distribution.)

Audiences are showing renewed enthusiasm for the filmgoing experience — and especially for bombastic nostalgia trips based on yesteryear IP like Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion. But in an era where year-over-year domestic box-office revenues still lag 60 percent behind those of 2019, Lightyear’s theatrical rollout may no longer be the most accurate measure of its impact. Rich Greenfield, a partner and media and technology analyst at LightShed Ventures who frequently analyzes Disney and its subsidiaries, points to the way another Disney animated hit Encanto used an alternative playbook to saturate cultural consciousness. After its Thanksgiving multiplex release last year, the $75 million film took in a relatively meager $256 million worldwide. But months out from its release, Encanto’s songs (written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) went viral on social media and became chart-topping hits. That turned the magical-realist romp into a kind of inescapable juggernaut, driving up subscriptions to Disney+ and compelling Disney CEO Bob Chapek to herald its success as “the launch of a new franchise” on a February earnings call.

“If Lightyear can be huge on Disney+, that may be more important to the Walt Disney Company than its actual box office,” says Greenfield. “To be a success at the box office, it has to probably generate $700 million to $1 billion. On the flip side, if Lightyear can become a breakout hit like Encanto on Disney+, the box office doesn’t matter.”

To be sure, there has been grousing among industry observers over a perceived racial favoritism in the film’s theatrical release: Lightyear is focused around a white male space-ranger protagonist and was directed by Angus MacLane, a 47-year-old white guy. Pixar’s most recent streaming releases, Soul and Turning Red, meanwhile, were directed or co-directed by filmmakers of color and are respectively plotted around a Black jazz musician and a Chinese-Canadian eighth-grader.

And that outcry comes just two months removed from Pixar employees taking a rare step to publicly call bullshit on Disney for its lack of inclusivity. In March, Chapek sent a company-wide memo in response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, stating that the “biggest impact” the studio can make “in creating a more inclusive world is through the content we produce.” In turn, a group identifying itself as “the LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar and their allies” put out a statement outlining Disney’s demands for the elimination of “overt gay affection” in their films. “We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the open letter states. (Lightyear, for its part, has been banned in 14 markets across the Middle East and Southeast Asia after the Mouse House refused to remove a same-sex relationship in the film that includes a kiss between two female characters.)

But according to another animation insider familiar with Disney’s business practices, the decision to release Lightyear exclusively in thousands of theaters has less to do with white privilege than its value as a continuation of Toy Story — arguably Pixar’s most lucrative intellectual property. “It’s a franchise play,” this source says. “But more than that, to be a franchise, you need theatrical to be more valuable on streaming venues. Lightyear was always headed for the big screen. There’s a lot of merch involved and merch sells more and faster with a theatrical run.”

Toward that end, Dean Movshovitz, author of Pixar Storytelling: Rules for Effective Storytelling Based on Pixar’s Greatest Films, feels the Buzz Lightyear origin story is a clever pivot on which to base a new blockbuster franchise. “It took a while for people to understand what Lightyear is,” Movshovitz says. “Out of the gate they didn’t do a great job of explaining what it is. But it is such a savvy move. Because they get all of the brand recognition without any of the brand fatigue. We still want to see Buzz Lightyear. We’re still in the Toy Story universe. But we’re not going to watch Buzz and Woody debate what to do about an owner again.”

He adds: “If it falls flat theatrically, then that would be bad news for Pixar and across all movies. But I don’t see that happening. Top Gun and Jurassic World: Dominion paved the way. They did very well. And they’re both reinvigorations of ’80s, ’90s properties — the same way Buzz Lightyear is.”

Pixar’s Lightyear Gambit