You…are…a…prequel? Sequel? Something different?
DisneyPixar get extraordinarily meta with this week’s new film Lightyear, coming exclusively to theaters. The movie stars Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear, who…well, this is where it gets a little tricky.
This Buzz is the real life astronaut who inspired the action figure audiences first met in 195’s Toy Story. The story takes place about 10 years before the events of that film and follows Buzz as he and other astronauts seek to escape the alien planet they’ve been marooned on and find their way back to Earth. That crew includes Uzo Aduba as Alisha Hawthorne and later, after a bit of wibbly-wobbly space-time craziness, Keke Palmer as Alisha’s grandaughter Izzy. Taika Waititi voices Mo Morrison and Dale Soules voices Darby Steel, both fellow recruits working with Buzz. James Brolin voices the real Emperor Zurg.
Put another way, this is the live action movie released within the Toy Story universe that told Buzz’s story, a movie that then was turned into a line of toys etc.
The movie is directed by Angus MacLure, who cowrote the script with Jason Headley. With all that established, let’s take a look at how the campaign was run.
announcements and casting
The movie was one of several announced by Disney during its December 2020 investors presentation, but had been in the works for a few years already after MacLure expressed interest in telling a more definitive story of Buzz’s origins than had been shared in a 2000 direct-to-video movie.
That announcement included news of Evans being cast as the voice of Buzz. Waititi joined a year later, with Brolin, Efren Ramirez and Isiah Whitlock Jr. reported to also be cast in early 2022.
the marketing campaign phase one: to infinity…
Things started off in October, 2021, with the release of a teaser poster that doesn’t show much beyond the familiar space suit of the titular astronaut.
The first teaser trailer (14m YouTube views) was also released at that time. It doesn’t explain a whole lot but does tease a great deal, showing Lightyear taking off on a mission, flying his ship through various locations and ultimately seeing what would become his well-known suit at the very end.
It wasn’t until February that the full trailer (18.8m YouTube views) came out. This one explains how Buzz is taking off on a mission after he and others have spent a long time marooned on a distant planet. From there on we see the kinds of dangers he’ll encounter as he comes across an army of killer robots and other threats, all while accompanied by Socks, his robotic cat companion.
Another poster came out at the same time, this one showing Buzz striding purposefully across a tarmac where we see all manner of ships parked, presumably ready for action.
In March the movie came to the center of a controversy that was rocking Disney at the time, namely the issue of LGBTQ+ representation and related matters. As Pixar employees were planning a walkout over the company’s failure to denounce (and even support) Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, the studio took a small step in the right direction by restoring a same-sex kiss between Hawthorne and her partner that had previously been cut.
The movie was among those touted by Disney during their CinemaCon presentation in April of this year, with attendees getting a look at 30 minutes of footage that included the queer sub-plot that had caused so much controversy.
Another trailer (17.1m YouTube views) came out around that same time. It starts with Buzz testing a rocket launch after he and his team have been marooned on a planet for a year. But when he returns after what feels like a short flight he finds he’s been gone for 62 years. New threats have emerged on the planet and it’s up to him to lead an inexperienced team to defeat the bad guys and finally make it back to Earth.
The poster this time around has Buzz staring out into space.
Disney released a video right after that of Evans, Palmer and Waititi reacting to the trailer.
At the beginning of May a “special look” came out that seemed like another trailer but at the very least added some more context to the story that had been shared to date.
Another new poster added Zurg and some of those helping Buzz, including Sox, to the mix, the base the heroes operate from shown in the foreground. That same team is shown on a second one-sheet from mid-May, this time running into action.
Blue Apron introduced movie-themed meal kits at this point to attract parents of kids who may be interested in the film and want to have a meal inspired by it.
the marketing campaign phase two: go sox
TV spots began running in early June with commercials that focused on the heroic space adventures, the fuzzy cuteness of Sox and more.
Of course the first clip from the film was one showing Buzz unboxing Sox for the first time. Another, this one exclusively given to Fandango, has Buzz and his ad hoc team being briefed on their mission.
All this (and more) was part of a shift in focus by the campaign away from the core story and onto the characters, especially Sox. That was seen in some of the clips and other assets that made sure audiences knew that not only was Sox unbelievably adorable but that there was a diverse and interesting team supporting the title character on his adventures.
The main three stars then were featured unboxing some of the toys people can buy.
While the movie was being released theatrically, Disney+ got a documentary on the history of the character and how he was developed for the first Toy Story movies. There was also a featurette with MacLure, Evans and others talking about the origins of the story, including looks at the voice recording and introductions to the rest of Buzz’s team.
An exclusive poster from RealD 3D shows Buzz taking on Zurg.
Evans appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the film and what it was like to add his own take to a well-known character, something he also spoke about a few days earlier at the movie’s premiere. He also weighed in on the same-sex kiss conversation while attending the Annecy Film Festival where the premiere was happening.
The next featurette shows the cast praising Evans’ performance as Buzz, something that was well-timed since this was about when various parties started calling out Disney for not casting Tim Allen in the film, the presumption being that his more conservative politics were no longer welcome at Woke Disney. Another offers a better introduction to the supporting characters by the actors who voice them.
There are two stories being sold here:
First is the story of the movie itself, which given no other information is communicated to the audience as the story of the real Buzz Lightyear and how he gained a reputation as a legendary Space Ranger beloved by the masses.
Second is the backstory/context that’s been explained by MacLure and others to make sure nerds understand where this story fits in with the adventures of Toy Buzz after Andy unwraps him as a birthday present.
That second one isn’t found in the campaign proper but has been covered extensively in various interviews with the director and others, but it seems to be completely unnecessary to understand and enjoy the film itself, so only go as deep into those waters as you feel comfortable.
What’s on display here is good enough and will likely be more attractive to those with young kids who are looking for something to do with those kids now that summer vacation is fully underway. The mixed reviews that have given the movie an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes probably won’t dissuade them, especially if they themselves have fond memories of seeing Toy Story in theaters, contributing to what’s expected to be an opening weekend box-office take of $100 million, give or take.