Pixar’s chief creative officer Pete Docter has taken some time to reflect on the dismal reception to the company’s most recent Toy Story-based production, Lightyear. After a bit of soul-searching, Docter has summed up the film’s problems as a matter of not playing into the feeble expectations of the audience.
“We’ve done a lot of soul-searching about that because we all love the movie. We love the characters and the premise,” Docter tells The Wrap. “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? Even if they’ve read the material in 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. It was much more of a science fiction.”
With some of the newer Pixar projects doing directly to streaming, it’s harder to simply equate success with box office numbers. Lightyear was the first Pixar film to hit theaters since 2020's Onward, which also tanked in comparison to previous outings. However, when looking at Toy Story 4, the discrepancy is clear, with Lightyear earning $226 million worldwide compared to Toy Story 4's whopping $1 billion. From a critical perspective, Lightyear hit lows not seen since 2017's Car 3, resting at a low-for-Pixar 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Realizing that banking on a beloved franchise does not always cash out is a hard lesson to learn (and one many more companies will likely learn soon, too). IP isn’t a guaranteed source of success, and when a premise is as convoluted as Lightyear’s, it’s hard to fault the audience for the failure. Yes, viewers may love Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear the action figure, but many could not muster up the same excitement for the man the toy was based on, voiced by Chris Evans.
As a result, Lightyear—despite its well-baked origins—paled in comparison to recent original stories like Luca, Turning Red (which currently is in the Oscars race for Best Animated Feature Film), Inside Out, and Coco. Contrary to Docter’s idea, Lightyear’s failure was not a matter of the audience not rising to the occasion, but more that the story was probably not one worth telling in the first place.
However, it seems as though Disney/Pixar is going back to the drawing board when it comes to storytelling within the Toy Story universe, with a fifth installment of the franchise in the works. Docter calls it “surprising,” fit with “some really cool stuff that you haven’t seen before.”
“The thing we’ve been really trying to do, and this has been the case for a while, is we’ve been looking at them a little bit like, okay, we’re not planning for the future. When we made the first Toy Story, we had no idea there would be a Toy Story 2,” Docter says. “We’re just trying to make this movie. But that in making the movie, it takes you places, unexpected places, which is what I love about the creative process. If I knew exactly what I was doing when I started making a movie, there’d kind of be no point in making it. I discover so much along the way.”
Hey, as long as there’s Woody and Rex and Mr. Potato Head, we’re all good.