‘Minions’ vs. ‘Lightyear:’ Here’s why the silly yellow blobs beat Buzz at the box office

Buzz Lightyear and Minion
Source: Getty Images

Two blockbuster animated franchises went head-to-head at the box office this past weekend. One of them benefited from buzz − and it wasn’t “Lightyear.”

In just three days, Universal and Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” tallied more than $107 million in domestic ticket sales and topped $200 million globally.

Its rival, Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” has generated just $105 million domestically since it was released three weeks ago and has struggled to reach $190 million worldwide.

The two franchises are among the most popular and profitable for their respective studios, having each raked in billions of dollars in ticket sales over the last decade — so why did “Minions” soar and “Lightyear” flop?

It comes down to storytelling and target audience, box office analysts say.

“The relatively soft response to ‘Lightyear’ by audiences and their unbridled excitement for ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ reflects many different factors, not the least of which is the that the films are polar opposites in terms of their approach to delivering a story to the audience,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

While “Minions” leaned heavily into the slapstick comedy that made the last four installments in the Despicable Me franchise so successful, “Lightyear” shifted away from a formula that endeared so many generations to the Toy Story franchise − centering on emotional stories around beloved childhood toys.

“Minions: The Rise of Gru” tells the villain origin story of Gru, who as a child seeks to establish himself amongst the biggest bad guys in the world. Along the way, his gang of denim overall-wearing minions bungles his plans, resulting in a silly, gut-busting romp.

“Slapstick comedy is a tried-and-true genre that kids of all ages have always loved,” Dergarabedian said.

“Lightyear,” which was also billed as an origin story, is about the film that made Buzz Lightyear the hottest-selling toy and a coveted prize for young Andy. The characters on screen aren’t toys that believe they are real, they are actually human. This meta-style story might have been enticing to audiences that grew up with “Toy Story” in the ’90s, but for younger generations, the science-fiction action adventure missed the mark.

“Minions” was simply more accessible to audiences, analysts said.

“Minions” also got a surprise boost at the box office from teenagers, who bought 15% of the movie’s tickets during its opening weekend. For “Lightyear,” 6% of tickets were purchased by teens, according to data from EntTelligence.

A new trend on TikTok likely helped fuel “Minions” sales, as groups of young moviegoers dressed in formal attire to attend showings of the new Despicable Me film. The “Gentleminions” hashtag has more than 9 million views on TikTok and gained the attention of Universal Studios.

“To everyone showing up to ‘Minions’ in suits: we see you and we love you,” the company wrote in a tweet last Friday.

Families accounted for 68% of “Minions: The Rise of Gru” ticket sales during its opening weekend, while adults without children accounted for 17% of tickets.

For “Lightyear,” families accounted for 65% of the tickets sold, while adults without children accounted for nearly 30% of ticket sales.

“What ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’s debut proves without a doubt is that family audiences are once again able to strongarm a film at the box office,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “We saw that with ‘Sonic 2’ earlier this year, but hadn’t yet seen a traditional animated film slay the box office since pre-pandemic times.”

While it’s a promising sign for theaters that parents and kids are finally flocking back to cinemas, production delays during the pandemic mean there aren’t many new movies for them to watch.

Nickelodeon’s “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” arrives July 15 followed by Warner Bros.’ “DC League of Super-Pets” on July 29 and then there is a lull until Disney’s “Strange World” arrives November 23.

“This summer has long looked like it would provide the most high-profile animated releases for most of the remainder of the year, so it’s great news that the ‘Minions’ film is over-performing in the way it is,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.

Robbins noted that the Sony film “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,” which uses live-action and animation, could be a sleeper hit at the box office when it arrives October 7 to help tide over families with children looking for movies during the fall.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

Sophie Tremblay

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