Pixar's chief creative officer has admitted that the studio was wrong to presume that audiences would understand what Lightyear was about.
Speaking to The Wrap, Pete Docter explained why Lightyear – one of two Pixar movies released in 2022; the other being Turning Red – didn't perform well at the box office. The reason? Viewers didn't get why the Toy Story quasi-spin-off film wasn't an actual Toy Story movie.
"We’ve done a lot of soul-searching about that because we all love the movie," Docter said. "We love the characters and the premise. I think probably what we’ve ended on in terms of what went wrong is that we asked too much of the audience. When they hear Buzz, they’re like 'Great, where’s Mr. Potato Head and Woody and Rex?' And then we drop them into this science fiction film that they’re like 'What?'"
Why did Lightyear's thrusters fail to ignite?
Most of the confusion stemmed from how Lightyear was marketed. Lightyear is a spin-off film from the Toy Story series, but isn't set in that franchise's fictional universe. Instead, the Chris Evans-starring movie is the in-Pixar universe sci-fi film that directly inspires the Buzz Lightyear merchandise range in Toy Story. It's also the movie that Andy – the human protagonist of Toy Story 1 through 3 – sees at the cinema, which leads to him asking his mom to buy him a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday in Toy Story 1.
Unsurprisingly, the meta nature of Lightyear didn't aid the movie's box office performance. It only grossed $226.4 million globally and, with a reported budget of $200 million, the Pixar film actually ended up losing money (when marketing and promotional costs are factored into the equation).
Given its poor theatrical performance, Lightyear landed on Disney Plus earlier than anticipated. The movie only launched in cinemas on June 17, but it was released on Disney's streaming platform on August 3 – just six weeks after its theatrical debut. The film went on to become the most-streamed Disney Plus movie in August 2022.
Even with its new lease on life on Disney Plus, Docter admitted that Pixar could have promoted Lightyear much more clearly than it did. However, he said the Pixar Braintrust has no regrets about developing a movie that left viewers puzzled about what it was supposed to be.
"If they [viewers] have read the material in the press, it was just a little too distant, both in concept, and I think in the way that characters were drawn, that they were portrayed," Docter added. "It was much more of a science fiction. And Angus [MacFarlane, Lightyear's director], to his credit, took it very seriously and genuinely and wanted to represent those characters as real characters. But the characters in Toy Story are much broader, and so I think there was a disconnect between what people wanted/expected and what we were giving to them."
For fans of Toy Story, there's good news – well, maybe not so good news if you think the franchise should be left alone – about what's next for Pixar's most popular series. A fifth Toy Story film is already in the works, with recently returning Disney CEO Bob Iger confirming as much during the company's Q1 2023 earnings call.
It's early days where Toy Story 5's development is concerned, but Docter has teased what people can expect from the next installment. "I think it’ll be surprising," he said. "It’s got some really cool stuff that you haven’t seen before". Here's hoping he's right.
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