Lightyear’s box office failure is actually on theme for recent Pixar movies

Disney and Pixar’s big summer movie Lightyear arrived on the Disney Plus streaming service after grossing around $120 million at the domestic box office. This is, at the moment, the 10th biggest North American gross of 2022, representing more money than a number of hits including The Bad Guys, The Lost City, Screamand The Black Phone. It is also, by Disney and Pixar’s standards, a failure.

In retrospect, it doesn’t make much sense to compare Lightyear‘s finances to the Toy Story series that spawned it. Lightyear positions itself as the “real” movie that made Andy, the main human character in the first three Toy Story movies, obsessed with Buzz Lightyear. But the whole Toy Story deal is predicated on the idea that toys’ owners could imbue them with a rich, imaginative, deeply human inner life far beyond their plastic origins, all of which renders Lightyear‘s humanization of Buzz somewhere between redundant and obsolete. Its decent grosses also look like a minimum baseline for its studio. only Onward, released mere days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters nationwide, attracted fewer people to a wide thetrical release of a Pixar movie. (Yes, The Good Dinosaur was marginally more popular than Lightyear.)

At the same time, Lightyear does have an unusual, compelling element: It preemptively addresses its own failure through its storyline. The movie is very much about learning to accept the disappointment and other consequences of making a mistake, rather than heroically fixing or undoing the error.

Buzz Lightyear in Pixar's Lightyear

Image: Pixar

Lightyear‘s focus on failure is a theme it has in common with a number of Pixar movies from the past decade. During this time, the studio has remained a box office powerhouse; half of its biggest-ever hits have come out since 2012. Yet there are cracks in the studio’s facade, whether in the form of less rapturous reviews than those that greeted that Ratatouille/WALL-E/Up run of the late 2000s, an overall reliance on sequels and prequels, or the occasional box office shortfaller like The Good Dinosaur — an interestingly weird movie that was also the first Pixar production that felt like it was released to get it out the door for a release date, not because it was totally ready.

So it’s only natural that Pixar’s first-decade predilection for movies about parenting (Toy Story, Finding Nemo), exceptional talents (Ratatouille, Cars, Monsters, Inc.), or parenting the exceptional (The Incredibles) might give way to movies that consider failure and disappointment beyond the textbook second-act setback. It’s most noticeable in Monsters Universitya prequel to Monsters, Inc. that explains how diminutive green monster Mike (Billy Crystal) became such a great team with his big blue buddy Sully (John Goodman). The movie is set during their college years, and reveals that Mike’s greatest ambition was to be a master scarer — to hone exactly the kind of ability that comes naturally to Sully. In the movie’s surprising ending, Mike does not lead a team of scrappy underdogs to victory and prove himself a worthy champion scarer. He tries his absolute best, improves vastly as a scarer, and his effort still isn’t enough to make his lifelong dream come true. Mike takes another path, finding success assisting the more naturally talented Sully (and, in the original movie, eventually finding his true calling making children laugh rather than scream with fright).

In some ways, this might seem like an extension of off-putting Pixar exceptionalism (see Brad Bird’s movies at the studio in particular) — a warning to kids in the audience that they may not have the natural talent necessary to succeed. But the sheer number of children’s films that offer nonstop bland assurances about being yourself, believing in yourself, and achieving the impossible more than justifies a more realistic corrective, accompanied by the more comforting corollary that happiness need not depend on achieving a youthful dream. much of Monsters University is a cute but slight spoof of campus comedies, so it’s especially impressive to see the movie work toward a crucial truth of the college experience: that the experiences pursued with such virulence in youth may not directly correlate to the work that defines your life.

Monsters University, Monsters Inc, Pixar, animation

Monsters University
Image: Pixar

The tension between youthful expectations of greatness and the more nuanced realities of “normal” working life also power Pixar’s Soul. Joe (Jamie Foxx), the film’s hero, is a middle school music teacher who longs to make it as a jazz musician; it’s that desire that urges him to find a way back to his damaged body when an accident sends his soul to the Great Beyond (that is to say, hovering near death). Again, Pixar provocatively forces an underdog protagonist to question the practical likelihood of a big dream leading to sustained success, this time in a movie that explicitly discusses whether a soul’s “spark” is the same as that person’s purpose in life. Toward the end of the movie, after regaining his body, Joe plays a successful show as a jazz pianist. It doesn’t instantly provide spiritual fulfillment or, on a more practical level, catapult him to the next level as a pro musician. He needs to look at his life more holistically; success can still feel like failure if you don’t appreciate what you have, and so on.

Like a lot of Soul‘s metaphysical mechanics, its ideas about “spark” and purpose are complicated in a way that borders on convoluted. They also conflict with the aforementioned Pixar high-achiever vibe in a way that threatens to make the movie look out of touch. Presumably, many of the animators, writers, and other filmmakers working on Soul are, in fact, living their creative dream; with that in mind, it may be harder to accept their high-minded ruminations on pushing forward through life with an appreciation of its simpler pleasures. Younger audiences who don’t think about who makes these movies might simply be perplexed by all of this discussion of life’s purpose and inner spark.

Soul often feels like a messier rewrite of Inside Out, which is Pixar’s clearest and most satisfying movie to address failure, though it does so in a sidelong way. Riley, the 11-year-old girl whose head much of the movie takes place in, isn’t failing in her chosen vocation; she’s just in a phase where nothing in her life seems to be going right, and her usual parent-encouraged strategy of putting a happy face on her challenges and disappointments is no longer working for her. The movie’s ultimate thesis, that a full life will inevitably be full of both joy and sadness, is emotionally sophisticated and communicated in a clear and elegant way that a large swath of the audience will understand.

joe gardner, voiced by jamie foxx, in pixar's soul

Image: Pixar

These are the heights that Lightyear fails to hit, though the movie does have a bit more emotional heft than you might expect from a franchise extension that often feels like the result of a corporate team-building retreat. Confounding anyone expecting a grand, planet-hopping galactic adventure, the movie is mostly about Buzz (Chris Evans) accidentally getting a team of space explorers stranded on a distant and hostile planet, then pushing himself to the limit in an effort to fix his mistake . These attempts result in a series of time-jump missions; the life of his closest friend passes by, Interstellar-style, as Buzz repeatedly fails to achieve his lofty goals. Eventually, he must confront both his inability to undo this damage, and his relentless desire to play the fix-it hero on his own. It’s easy to imagine Buzz as a Pixar filmmaker, convinced that if he just keeps hammering away at a wayward story, he can get it into crowdpleasing shape.

Lightyear doesn’t quite reach that shape. That it even attempts to tackle something like Interstellar for kids is both admirable and, perhaps, an example of Buzz-like hubris. Again, the movie mirrors Buzz himself. Just as Buzz Lightyear curtails the movie’s sense of high-flying sci-fi thrills by spending most of his movie struggling to repair an arrogant mistake he makes early on, Lightyear itself expends a lot of energy trying to make something emotional and affecting out of a pretty mercenary idea for spinning off Toy Story into a second franchise. What’s most interesting about Lightyear is also what makes it vaguely unsatisfying: For much of its running time, it appears to be atoning for its existence, desperate to prove that the filmmakers can make magic out of franchising.

The movie comes surprisingly close to pulling it off, even subverting the Toy Story movies’ spoof good-versus-evil mythmaking by pitting Buzz against himself, both figuratively and literally. Eventually, he realizes that he can move forward with a mission and a set of friends that weren’t part of his initial plan. Yet some of Pixar’s failure-focused films do have a sense of aliens trying to understand their human inferiors — as if just learning about the idea that creative ventures do not always result in critical acclaim, awards, and billions of dollars in merchandising.

This has more to do with the company’s collective identity. Despite the company’s unprecedented successes, almost everyone working at Pixar has doubtless experienced some kind of disappointment, failure, or setback on a personal level, and these likely inform the moments of truth that poke through movies like Lightyear or Soul, far more often than they do at most other American animation studios. The result is a very contemporary struggle between artistry and branding; in Lightyear, it’s the branding that takes the hit for once. Check back in a few years — it’s possible that the failure of Lightyear to become an acclaimed billion-dollar smash will turn into the most valuable thing about it.