‘Lightyear’ Illuminates Box Office’s Most Powerful Trend: Nostalgia

‘Lightyear’ Illuminates Box Office’s Most Powerful
Illustration: VIP+: Courtesy Paramount, Pixar, Universal

After four beyond successful outings at the box office, “Lightyear” hits cinemas today as the first theatrical spinoff to come from Disney and Pixar’s “Toy Story” franchise.

An origin story based on the commercial lore of Buzz Lightyear as established within the “Toy Story” universe, it’s another attempt to cash in on nostalgia for the franchise that originally put Pixar on the map as a storytelling force after 2019’s “Toy Story 4,” a billion-dollar grosser worldwide.

But “Lightyear” is projected to take in just $70 million-$80 million in its first weekend, a notch down from the $120 million opening net by “Toy Story 4” — primarily because the summer box office is already full of nostalgia-reliant titles filling seats.

“Jurassic World Dominion” released last weekend to $145 million domestically, making it the third-best opener of the pandemic, behind sequels to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Spider-Man” and “Doctor Strange” films. The third entry in the Chris Pratt-led film series, it is the first to fully reunite the surviving adult cast of the original “Jurassic Park,” with Sam Neill and Laura Dern joining Jeff Goldblum and BD Wong, who already returned in prior films.

This nostalgic cash-in was enough to boost Universal’s cumulative 2022 gross up to the levels of its major studio competitors — except for Paramount.

The studio behind “Mission: Impossible” has already grossed more than $800 million domestically this year, for a $300 million lead over Sony Pictures, which was 2022’s top dog before the release of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

A sequel to the 1986 film that achieved a career-best debut at the box office for star Tom Cruise, “Top Gun: Maverick” released May 27 and has already grossed as much as Disney and Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” sequel, which hit U.S. theaters May 6 and earned $60 million more than “Top Gun” in its three-day opening, per Comscore.

While the ongoing “Mission: Impossible” series has long cemented Cruise as a regular for big-budget actioners, the ability of “Top Gun: Maverick” to claim an opening larger than any of that franchise’s six films is a clear sign-off on the power of a successful nostalgic trip that even got Val Kilmer to reprise his role from the first “Top Gun,” despite the actor’s health issues.

Paramount’s impressive box office run this year is due in part to a doubling down on nostalgia trips that extends past “Top Gun.” Reboots of “Scream” and “Jackass” kicked off the studio’s slate in January and February, respectively, while “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” bowed in April as another successful film adaptation of Sega’s long-running “Sonic the Hedgehog” video games, which were staples of the ’90s.

Nostalgia has largely defined the leading films of other major studios in 2022. Sony’s haul this year was boosted heavily by trailing gross from December’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which saw prior stars Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield return to play the titular hero alongside Tom Holland, Spider-Man's current MCU incarnation. Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina also reprised their roles as villains from the Maguire era.

Disney’s “Doctor Strange” sequel in turn benefited from the hype generated by “No Way Home,” which saw “Doctor Strange” star Benedict Cumberbatch play the MCU hero in a supporting role, thanks to both films sharing the same cinematic universe. On top of that, Disney brought on Sam Raimi to direct the “Doctor Strange” sequel, marking his return to Marvel IP after helming the original “Spider-Man” trilogy that starred Maguire.

“Lightyear” may not end up grossing as high as superhero films on the 2022 theatrical leaderboard, but the fact it’s even releasing in theaters at all is a vote of confidence from Disney.

Unlike ”Black Widow,” which hit theaters and Disney+ at the same time in July 2021 for what was then a record pandemic opening, Pixar films ”Soul,” ”Luca” and ”Turning Red” all dropped on Disney+ exclusively after Disney scrapped their theatrical releases, a strategy that has reportedly grown wearisome for Pixar’s workforce.

Those three films are new properties for Pixar, so it’s understandable that Disney would feel differently about ensuring a theatrical release for “Lightyear,” due to the larger franchise to which it belongs. And while Tim Allen did not return as the voice of Buzz Lightyear, the casting of Chris Evans as his replacement could be appealing to MCU fans missing Captain America after the last “Avengers” film.

With Universal’s long-delayed “Minions” sequel out in two weeks, “Lightyear” doesn’t have long before another tentpole animated franchise returns to theaters. But as ticket sales show, filmgoers remain enraptured by this blast-from-the-past approach to tentpoles, and “Lightyear” is yet another nostalgic offering to keep those appetites satiated.