The disappointing box office for Disney Pixar's Lightyear is the latest piece of bad news for the beloved animation studio's future. After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed, then reduced the capacities of the world's movie theaters, Pixar finally returned to the big screen with its Toy Story spinoff. However, Lightyear failed to perform as hoped and failed to knock Jurassic World Dominion from the top spot at the global box office. Lightyear's mixed reviews are just one of a confluence of factors contributing to why Lightyear's box office is so disappointing.

Lightyear is Pixar's first theatrical release since 2020's Onward, released just before the pandemic. The release of Soul in 2020 was hampered by the second wave of COVID and subsequent winter lockdowns in many of Disney's key markets and the same went for Luca. While many countries were transitioning back to the way things were pre-COVID by the time of Turning Red's release in early 2022, but was ultimately released on Disney+ due to the rising spike in the Omicron variant. Depending on how Pixar and the wider Disney corporation respond to the poor performance and audience reactions to Lightyear, more new Pixar films may find their way onto the studio's streaming service rather than theaters.

As theaters continue to emerge from a financially challenging global pandemic, Disney's attitude to releasing future Pixar movies appears to have shifted direction. Chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution Kareem Daniel said earlier this year of the decision to release Turning Red on Disney+ that "Given the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films, flexibility remains at the core of our distribution decisions." (via Bloomberg) The pandemic was clearly a factor in Disney's decision to skip Turning Red's cinema release, but there's also a commercial factor to the phrasing of Kareem Daniel's statement, which implies that Disney didn't believe Turning Red was strong enough to lead that recovery. Neither, it seems, was Lightyear, given the movie's disappointing opening weekend. In hindsight, Lightyear's origin story/spinoff hybrid feels like a far better fit for a subscriber-funded streaming service than a theater. What Lightyear's box office means for Pixar's future will depend on which lessons Disney learns from the disappointing box office response to the movie.

Why Lightyear's Box Office Was Lower Than Expected

Disney expected Lightyear to open in North America with at least $70 million, but the opening weekend figure fell short by $19 million. While it's not a complete disaster, it's not a good start for a movie that had a $200 million budget and even more money set aside for marketing the Toy Story character inspiration's spinoff. Some industry commentators have highlighted the fact families haven't returned in force to multiplexes following the pandemic, but a comparable family movie like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 outperformed Lightyear with over $72 million in its opening weekend. The success of Sonic 2 and other big-name releases makes it clear that there's more to Lightyear's poor performance than lingering COVID anxiety and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

The main issue with Lightyear is the concept, which frames the movie as an in-universe 1995 blockbuster watched by Toy Story's Andy that inspired him to get the Buzz Lightyear action figure. Disney even promoted the movie with artwork of him watching Lightyear with the whole Toy Story gang. However, to audiences who grew up with the Toy Story franchise, Buzz Lightyear's a toy, not a sci-fi action hero and it was hard to figure out what the movie was supposed to be from conception to release. It's a muddled premise for the general public to get a handle on, particularly kids, and if audiences don't understand what a film is then they'll give it a wide berth. Likewise, it doesn't help that the aforementioned past three Pixar movies have gone straight to Disney+, setting a precedent for families who expected it to also be on the streamer rather than theaters only.

It's also worth looking at what other movies Lightyear is currently competing against at the box office. The two biggest movies are Tom Cruise's smash-hit return as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick and the return of the original Jurassic Park cast in Jurassic World Dominion. In competing with these two nostalgic box office hits, Lightyear sabotages itself with a convoluted set-up that positions the movie as adjacent to the Toy Story universe and doesn't even star Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear. Given the choice between two movies that bring back the actors and characters that audiences love and a movie that, despite its title, does neither, audiences have opted for Dominion and Maverick over Lightyear.

Does Lightyear's Box Office Mean More Pixar Movies On Disney+?

Whether Lightyear's disappointing box office ensures more Disney+ exclusive Pixar movies comes down to what lessons are learned from the lackluster response to the movie. The opposing lessons of Lightyear are based on two viewpoints that have defined movies for over a century - the battle between culture and commerce. The ending of Lightyear makes it clear to audiences that Disney and Pixar are banking on being able to build a Toy Story adjacent franchise around the fictional Space Ranger. However, given the response to the movie, a sequel may take a similar approach to the abandoned Obi-Wan Kenobi movie that was turned into a successful Disney+ miniseries.

As for future Pixar movies, it's harder to tell. If Disney sees Lightyear's disappointing box office as a problem with Pixar then it's likely it will cut its marketing and distribution costs by delivering new Pixar movies direct to audiences via streaming on Disney+. Hopefully, Disney recognizes Lightyear's slow opening weekend and the Toy Story spinoff's mixed reviews as evidence of franchise fatigue and realizes the true value of Pixar's work. Since 1995, Pixar has been delighting audiences with high-concept storytelling and beautifully realized worlds and characters designed for the big screen. If Disney wants to truly tap into the multiplex nostalgia market through Pixar, they would do well to remember the fondness that many generations have for new movies from this beloved animation studio.