As of now, you can see Lightyear in cinemas. The Pixar movie, a spin-off of the Toy Story franchise, features Chris Evans as the spacefaring astronaut that inspired the action figure. It’s exactly the kind of adventure movie Pixar is good at, technically dazzling and full of charming characters.
Lightyear heralds the acclaimed studio’s return to theatres, after the Covid-19 pandemic pushed two year’s worth of its releases onto Disney Plus. Since Onward was moved to the platform in early 2020, Soul, Luca, and Turning Red became streaming exclusives, each available as part of your standard Disney Plus subscription upon their scheduled release dates.
Hybrid release strategies have become part of the new normal, as distributors maintain bespoke streaming services in addition to their cinematic output. Disney now operates on a 45-day window for tentpoles, with animated movies and the MCU alike transitioning from silver to small screen after the allotted period. Lightyear is the first Pixar feature to follow this plan, which is all well and good, but the delay in bringing the production house’s work back to the big screen raises questions about Disney’s priorities.
Disney was quick to get back into multiplexes during the summer of 2021. Marvel movie Black Widow was the start, in early July, before Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, later that month. Once restrictions allowed, Disney made sure that its films were synonymous with going out and getting back to the big screen experience.
We had an on-demand option with Premier Plus, but that cost as much as a standard screening ticket (if not more, depending on availability) – if you’re going to pay to see it, you might as well get the benefits of a massive screen and sound system, right? Animated movie Encanto arrived later in 2021, joining West Side Story for family viewings over the Christmas period.
The MCU is now back in full swing, and the Disney movie Strange World is coming in November. Between summer 2021 and now, we’ve had two Pixar features besides Lightyear: Luca and Turning Red. Both big-budget original works, like Encanto, voiced by a range of recognisable stars like Jim Gaffigan, Maya Randolph, and Sandra Oh.
Despite coming out at a point when theatres were tentatively reopening, they joined Soul as Disney Plus releases. Once they were out, subscribers could watch at their leisure. The convenience is nothing to be sniffed at, but the unceremonious rollover robbed them of some event status.
To infinity: The best animated series
Luca, a charming, Italy-themed, coming-of-age story, could’ve been the House of Mouse’s theatrical comeback, promising a brief filmic holiday since many couldn’t travel still. Turning Red is the first Disney production to be directed by an Asian woman, Domee Shi, and its plot of an adolescent, Chinese-Canadian girl pushed boundaries for representation.
Much of Turning Red feels like the Pixar of the ’90s and early 2000s; forward-thinking, gorgeous, memorable, and heartfelt. You can sense that particular magic associated with Pixar’s clumsy lamp mascot, and although there was a full press circuit, the fact it was streaming-only did detract from the occasion.
Going to the cinema is special. In the right circumstances, it can be transformative. You’re paying to be in an enclosed space with a piece of art, often the result of hundreds of passionate creators across numerous fields of expertise. What appears on that screen and comes out of those speakers often seems otherworldly, impossible that it came from human hands.
It’s particularly entrancing in childhood, when even entering the building comes with novelty. You’ve got snacks, fancy seats, and an ultra-wide TV to enjoy something truly spectacular, all of which is heightened if you can see yourself reflected in the story told.
No doubt Turning Red has been life-changing for an entire generation of kids who see themselves in Mei’s teen hardships, whether in general or for more culturally specific reasons, but it’s not what it could’ve been.
Those audience members didn’t get to see themselves projected through the allegorical celluloid at their local theatre. They didn’t get to buy a ticket, pick up some overpriced popcorn, or get swept up in the narrative. Streaming is great for access, but it can make entertainment seem frivolous, just another thing to add to the queue.
And beyond: The best science fiction movies
With Turning Red not getting a full theatrical run, it seems like Disney is perhaps trying to separate Pixar from its in-house work. Since Onward, Pixar’s output has been straight onto Disney Plus. If you want the real cinematic Disney productions, then you need to book a seat wherever big movies are screening.
That is, unless it’s tied to an established franchise, with some favoured Disney talent. Lightyear gives licence to push all those Toy Story figures, along with a wave of new ones, and parade Chris Evans around. Taika Waititi too, who can conveniently start getting buzz going for Thor: Love and Thunder in July.
Perhaps this is cynical. Disney is beaming some big releases onto our screens at home, with the Tom Hanks-led Pinocchio remake arriving in September. But then, the live-action The Little Mermaid is still set for cinemas in 2023.
Pixar’s the only part of the Disney motion-picture empire that seems to be relegated to our phones, laptops, and televisions. This could change with Elemental next year, and I hope it does, because going to Disney Plus would put it in league with the Home Alone reboot. Who wants that?