Lightyear, a big summer film by Disney and Pixars, has arrived on the Disney Plus streaming service, grossing around $120 million at the domestic box office in 2022. This is, at the moment, the tenth largest North American gross of 2022, surpassing several other films such as The Bad Guys, The Lost City, Scream, and The Black Phone.
Lightyear's finances are irrelevant in retrospect, since it's the real movie that sparked Andy, the main human character in the first three Toy Story films, who is now obsessed with Buzz Lightyear. All of this implies that Lightyear's portrayal of Buzz would be redundant and obsolete, and its decent grossings are also a minimum requirement for a Pixar film. (Yes, The Good Dinosaur was marginally more popular than Lightyear.)
Nevertheless, Lightyear has an unusual, powerful feature: It preemptively addresses its own failure through its plot. The film is very much about learning to accept the consequences and limitations of making a mistake rather than heroically correcting or undoing it.
Lightyear's focus on failure has a lot in common with a number of Pixar films from the past decade; half of their biggest-ever releases have been released since 2012. Yet there are flaws in the studios facade, whether in the form of less enthusiastic reviews than those that followed that Ratatouille/WALL-E/Up run in the late 2000s or the occasional box office failure like The Good Dinosaur, an interestingly weird film that was also the first Pixar production to feel like it
Pixar's first-decade obsession with parenting (Toy Story, Cars, Monsters, Inc.) and being the exceptional (The Incredibles) has given way to films that consider failure and disappointment beyond the textbook second-act setback. In the film, Mike (Billy Crystal) performs his best, but his effort remains inadequate to fulfill his lifelong dream of helping Sully.
In some ways, this may seem like an extension of off-putting Pixar exceptionalism, as a warning to kids in the audience that they may not have the natural talent necessary to succeed, but the sheer number of childrens films that include the more mildly humorous corollary that happiness does not depend on achieving a youthful dream is particularly remarkable.
Pixars Soul is driven by a middle school music teacher who wants to be a jazz musician; its that desire that drives him to seek out a meaningful life after an accident, which leads him to the Great Beyond (that is, hovering near death). He needs to look at his life more holistically; success can still feel like failure if you dont appreciate what you have.
Soul's metaphysical mechanics are complex in a way that's bordering on convoluted. They also conflict with the aforementioned Pixar high-achiever vibe in a way that threatens to make the film seem out of touch; with that in mind, it may be difficult to accept their high-minded desires to continue living through life with an appreciation of its simpler pleasures.
Inside Out is often rewritten by Pixar in a shambles-like manner, though it does so in a sidelong fashion. Riley, the 11-year-old girl who plays the movie's central character, isnt failing in her chosen profession, just in a phase where nothing in her life seems to be going right, and her usual parent-style approach to putting a smile on her difficulties and disappointments isn't working for her.
Lightyear fails to reach these lofty goals, although the film has a bit more emotional heft than you would expect from a corporate team-building retreat. The film is mostly about Buzz (Chris Evans) accidentally getting stranded on a distant and hostile planet, then pushing himself to the limit in an effort to correct his mistake. Eventually, he must confront both his inability to undo his damage and his desire to become the fix-it hero.
Lightyear isn't quite that good at getting there. It's both admirable and, perhaps, an example of Buzz-like hubris. Just as Buzz Lightyear reduces the movie's thrills by dedicating most of his time to remaking an arrogant mistake he makes early on, Lightyear devotes a lot of time trying to make something meaningful and affecting out of a rather mercenary idea for a second franchise.
The film comes up remarkably close to pulling off a convincing comeback, even subverting Toy Story's good-versus-evil mythmaking by pitting Buzz against himself, both figuratively and literally. However, some failure-focused films do have a sense of aliens attempting to understand their human inferiors as if learning about the fact that creative endeavors rarely result in critical acclaim, awards, and billions in merchandising.
The reason for this is more directly related to the company's collective identity. Despite Pixar's outstanding achievements, most everyone has certainly experienced some form of disappointment, failure, or setback on a personal level, and these likely inform the moments of truth that poke through films like Lightyear or Soul, much more often than they do at other American animation studios.