Over the last year, we’ve had the second-biggest opening weekend of all time (Spider-Man: No Way Home), a Tom Cruise-starring Top Gun movie earning $160 million in four days, a Doctor Strange sequel seizing the second biggest no-Iron Man/Spider-Man MCU opening ever and the biggest-grossing video game movie in unadjusted domestic grosses (Sonic the Hedgehog 2). There’s been much evidence since last May, when A Quiet Place part II opened with $57 million and essentially tied its pre-Covid $50-$60 million tracking, that tentpoles can open as well (if not better) now than they would have under non-Covid circumstances. Lightyear (review) technically nabbed the biggest Covid-era opening day for animation on Friday, but a $20.7 million Friday for a Pixar biggie is still a disappointment. Maybe conditioning consumers to watch Pixar biggies “for free” on Disney+ was a long-term mistake.
Lightyear, starring Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear in a stand-alone sci-fi action-comedy that’s being weirdly sold as “the movie Andy saw in 1995 that made him a Buzz Lightyear fan,” earned about as much money on its first full Friday than Top Gun: Maverick earned ($19.5 million) in its preview grosses. I was wrong about Tom Cruise’s legacy sequel soaring to infinity and beyond, but I frankly always pegged Lightyear as a shameless IP cash-in that, at best, would play like a straight-up Pixar original. Inflation notwithstanding, the 2001-2012 run of Pixar newbies (Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Incredibles, Cars, Wall-E, Up and Brave) mostly opened with $60-$71 million. Ratatouille debuted with $48 million in 2007 (before legging to $209 million) and Inside Out nabbed $90 million (against the second weekend of Jurassic World) in 2015, but I digress.
In a non-Covid world, Lightyear (which is a perfectly solid three-star, IMAX-friendly outer-space adventure) would have been the presumably easy lay-up/IP sell-out following a slew of original, inclusive and/or riskier Pixar toons like Onward, Soul, Luca and Turning Red. But those last three films went straight to Disney+, with Pixar’s “cool for grownups” reputation being used by a desperate Bob Chapek as a streaming subscription carrot since most of its non-Star Wars/Marvel shows didn’t break out and Covid kept the pipeline from running at full speed. Throw in Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto getting heavily compromised theatrical releases while this IP cash-in/white man’s hero’s journey actioner gets a full-throated theatrical release. Fair or not, it’s not a great look that the first big Disney pure theatrical in years is essentially Pixar’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.
It’s an unrequested prequel/origin story about the co-lead character in a popular kid-friendly franchise yet played by a different actor than the one associated with the character. Chris Evans as Buzz is a better bet than Alden Ehrenreich (great actor, go rent Beautiful Creatures) as Han, but it’s still a generic “white guy’s journey” flick following a handful of “not a white guy” films in the same brand, but with an eclectic, diverse cast (including at least one non-hetero supporting character) surrounding him. Solo bombed in 2018 because nobody gave a damn about it (especially overseas). Alas, the narrative became that its failure was due to “bad marketing,” “too much Star Wars” and the reception to the acclaimed and $1.3 billion-grossing Last Jedi. This resulted in The Rise of Skywalker being (seemingly) retooled to appease the online trolls.
I fear a similar fallout here, especially if Lightyear doesn’t recover over the weekend (which it could) or leg out over the summer (which it might). In a sane world, an underperformance by Lightyear would be seen as a bad bet on audiences wanting a standalone Buzz Lightyear flick. Had it opened closer to $70 million over the weekend (instead of the likely $52 million Fri-Sun/$60 million four-day Juneteenth holiday weekend), it could at least be explained as “Audiences just took this as a Pixar original.” However, the world being what it is, we’ll see discourse about how the film’s non-sensual kiss between two married grandmothers and/or Patricia Heaton’s last-minute Twitter outcry over Tim Allen being replaced somehow sunk the otherwise surefire film. Or, worse, Bob Chapek may decide that future Pixar movies, original or otherwise, shouldn’t open theatrically.
I was more bearish than I should have been on Frozen II after a “mere” $40 million Friday (akin to Alice in Wonderland 11 years earlier) and on Toy Story 4 after a “mere” $120 million opening weekend (akin to Toy Story 3 nine years earlier and just after Incredibles 2 opened with $183 million). Frozen II legged out to $130 million over the weekend and $470 million domestic while Toy Story 4 topped $430 million in North America. Like Solo, Lightyear is solid three-star entertainment, and unlike the summer of 2018, there just isn’t a ton of comparative competition. Minions: The Rise of Gru opens on July 1, but big Pixar movies (Toy Story 3, Inside Out, Finding Dory, Moana) can coexist with big Illumination movies (Despicable Me, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets, Sing).
Lightyear has solid reviews (an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes), an A- from Cinemascore and a firm birth as one of two “big deal” animated films between now and Disney’s Strange Worlds over Thanksgiving. Could it crash like The Good Dinosaur ($127 million from a $55 million Wed-Sun Thanksgiving debut)? Sure, and that would be around $155-$165 million domestic, while a run like Cars 2 ($191 million/$64 million) and Cars 3 ($153 million/$54 million) would still give Lightyear an over/under $155 million cume while Toy Story 4 legs would get it closer to $190 million. I’m more concerned about overseas numbers (Solo merely underwhelmed domestically but outright bombed overseas). I’m most concerned about how a theoretical commercial failure of Lightyear will be received at Disney. Solo essentially killed Star Wars theatricals. I hope Lightyear doesn’t do likewise for Pixar.
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