Almost three decades after his big screen debut, Buzz Lightyear finally has his own movie. But it’s his fellow space ranger, Alisha, that has stolen the show and prompted a ban from a large swathe of the Middle East and Asia.
At least 14 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Malaysia, have barred the release of Disney’s latest animated film, Lightyear, over a scene where Alisha greeted her female partner with a peck on the lips. Most crucially, the Toy Story spinoff is also unlikely to be released in China, the world’s biggest box office as of 2021.
“What’s at stake here is one second of a lesbian kiss,” Timmy Chen, a research assistant professor, who studies Asian cinema at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, told VICE World News. “Disney is not willing to cut it and cater to the Chinese market, which shows that the Chinese box office has become irrelevant due to pandemic lockdowns.”
Speaking at the film’s London premiere on Monday, Lightyear producer Galyn Susman confirmed the studio has refused to comply with censorship requests, including from Chinese authorities. “We’re not going to cut out anything, especially something as important as the loving and inspirational relationship that shows Buzz what he’s missing by the choices that he's making.”
While Chinese authorities haven’t officially confirmed a Lightyear ban, the country does not allow any depiction of homosexual relationships on the silver screen and has banned them from television since 2016. Although subtle portrayals have slipped past censors in the past, there is no way a same-sex kiss would make the cut, Chen said.
Similarly, Malaysia and several mostly Muslim countries have rejected the film due to restrictions over homosexual content. The United Arab Emirates had initially approved the film, but revoked the license following a backlash on social media, Variety reported.
Actor Chris Evans, who voices the titular astronaut, took a swipe at those who criticize the film for representing a gay couple. “The real truth is those people are idiots,” he said.
Prior to its release, the scene had been cut from the film, but it was reinstated after Pixar animators issued a public letter to Disney executives in March. In that letter, they stated that they’ve been pressured by Disney to remove “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection” from their films.
Although some have hailed Pixar for taking a stance on LGBTQ issues, the move is also the result of a change in calculation, experts say.
Hollywood had tried to appeal to China’s massive film market by integrating elements of the country into its plots. However, most attempts have backfired in recent years, former movie executive Chris Fenton told VICE World News.
Mulan, for instance, was a major flop in China and across the world, while both Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were rejected by Beijing’s censors for reasons that were never made clear.
“The risk and reward calculus of pandering to Beijing has been muddied,” Fenton said. “Even worse, actions to please China’s government have created criticism from moviegoers and politicians elsewhere, negatively affecting crucial revenues.”
As a result, the potential global goodwill film studios generate by protecting filmmakers’ freedom of creative expression now outweighs revenues from China, he said.
Adding to this calculation is the forecast that North America is set to overtake China as the top movie theater market in the world, as Chinese moviegoers remain stuck at home and cinemas shuttered amid recurring lockdowns.
Speaking at Disney’s second-quarter earnings calls last month, CEO Bob Chapek noted that some movies did well despite being shut out of the Chinese market.
“So we’re pretty confident that even without China… it doesn’t really preclude our success,” Chapek said.
Landing in theaters this week, Lightyear has opened to mixed reviews, with some critics calling it an unnecessary addition to the Toy Story universe. The first spinoff from the iconic franchise, it tells the origin story of the legendary space ranger who inspired the toy.