With the computer-animated spin-off Light-yearDisney’s Pixar Animation Studios is looking to make the intellectual property version of their hero Buzz Lightyear’s famous battle cry, To infinity and beyond! That is, creating 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 the movie’s merchandise becomes its own movie just to sell more merchandise. In the film’s opening moments, a title card explains Light-year‘s meta-narrative relationship with the mid-90s blockbuster Toys Story and its three multibillion-dollar sequels: “In 1995, a boy named Andy was given a toy from his favorite movie. This is the movie.”
But seen another way, Light-year (which debuts on Friday) is ready for the kind of takeoff that has eluded every other Pixar release since February 2020. In the wake of its coming-of-age fantasy Lucas, the existential drama Souland the metamorphic teenage mischief turning red — all streamed directly to Disney+ — Light-year arrives as the first feature film by the studio division to reach the interior of a movie theater since the early days of the beginning of the pandemic.
Over that time, reports of growing frustration among Pixar’s animators surfaced in the industry press. “We don’t want to be a Disney+-only title,” an unnamed Pixar employee told Business Insider. “These movies are made for the big screen. We want you to watch these movies without distractions, without looking at your phones.” Plus, with its 23 Academy Awards and long cultural association with original – even eccentric – animated classics like Above, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, the studio is synonymous with a certain cinematic excellence. And according to an animation expert who spoke to Vulture on condition of anonymity, there is no shortage of hurt feelings inside Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif. subscriptions to Disney’s OTT platform. “Pixar guys are sensitive,” says the person. “They are artists. They play by different rules. They don’t like to feel like they’re cogs in the Hollywood machine.” (Disney did not respond to Vulture’s request for comment from Kareem Daniel, the studio’s president of media distribution and entertainment.)
Audiences are showing renewed enthusiasm for the cinematic experience – and especially for bombastic nostalgia trips based on IPs from the past, such as Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion. But in an era where year-over-year domestic box office receipts are still 60% behind 2019, Light-year‘s theatrical release may no longer be the most accurate measure of its impact. Rich Greenfield, partner and media and technology analyst at LightShed Ventures, who frequently reviews Disney and its subsidiaries, points to the way another Disney animated hit Charm used an alternative manual to saturate cultural awareness. After its multiplex release on Thanksgiving last year, the $75 million film grossed a relatively meager $256 million worldwide. But months before its release, CharmLin-Manuel Miranda’s songs (written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) went viral on social media and became chart-topping hits. This turned the magical-realistic romp into something of an inescapable steamroller, boosting Disney+ subscriptions and forcing Disney CEO Bob Chapek to herald its success as “the launch of a new franchise” on an earnings call at February.
“If Light-year might be huge on Disney+, that might be more important to the Walt Disney Company than its actual box office,” says Greenfield. “To be a blockbuster, it must generate between $700 million and $1 billion. On the other hand, if Light-year can become a hit like Charm on Disney+, the box office doesn’t matter.”
To be sure, there were complaints among industry observers about perceived racial favoritism in the theatrical release of the film: Light-year is centered around the protagonist of a white male space ranger and was directed by Angus MacLane, a 47-year-old white guy. Pixar’s latest streaming releases, Soul and turning redmeanwhile, they were directed or co-directed by filmmakers of color and are, respectively, plotted around a black jazz musician and a Chinese-Canadian eighth grade student.
And that outcry comes just two months after Pixar employees took the rare step to publicly call Disney bullshit 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 content we produce”. In turn, a group that identifies itself as “the LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar and its allies” released a statement outlining Disney’s demands for the elimination of “open gay affection” in its films. “We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, coming back from corporate Disney critiques reduced to crumbs of what they once were,” the open letter states. (Light-yearin turn, it was banned in 14 markets in the Middle East and Southeast Asia after 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 expert familiar with Disney’s business practices, the decision to launch Light-year exclusively in thousands of theaters has less to do with white privilege than its value as a continuation of Toys Story — possibly Pixar’s most profitable intellectual property. “It’s a franchise game,” says this source. “But more than that, to be a franchise, you need theater to be more valuable in streaming venues. Light-year always went to the big screen. There are a lot of products involved and the products sell more and faster with a theatrical display.”
For this, Dean Movshovitz, author of Pixar Narratives: Rules for Effective Storytelling Based on Pixar’s Best Films, feels that Buzz Lightyear’s origin story is a smart pivot on which to base a successful new franchise. “It took a while for people to understand what Light-year it is,” says Movshovitz. “Outside the gate they didn’t do a great job explaining what it is. But it’s such a smart move. Because they get all the brand recognition without the brand fatigue. We still want to see Buzz Lightyear. we are still in Toys Story universe. But we’re not going to see Buzz and Woody debating what to do with an owner again.”
He adds: “If it hits theaters, that would be bad news for Pixar and for all movies. But I don’t see that happening. top gun and Jurassic World: Dominion paved the way. They did very well. And both are revivals of ’80s and ’90s properties – in the same way that Buzz Lightyear is.”