I know. Trying to compare the bloody action movie Prey on Hulu with Lightyear on Disney+ may seem like a stretch, at least genre-wise. But they are both ‘prequels’ of successful franchises, they have both taken an unconventional approach, and one works and the other doesn’t, so it’s worth having a look without giving too many spoilers.
Prey goes back 300 years where the lovable alien from a variety of Predator movies (the original starred Arnold Schwarzenegger), arrives on earth for what seems like a hunting holiday. He’s looking for the apex species, and eventually figures out its white guys with guns and native Americans with arrows. He discounts/overlooks/underestimates a young native American girl, at his potential peril.
Lightyear declares it is the movie young Andy from Toy Story loved in 1995, which led him to covet the plastic toy voiced by Tim Allen. It then launches us into a tale where Buzz gets trapped on an alien planet and keeps trying to go to hyperspace to save everyone, with each trip taking 4 years for everyone left behind, and about a minute for Buzz. But it morphs into something about an alien looking for his fuel source, and time travel, and a misfit group of young, plucky adventurers…or something.
Prey is an engaging script. Lightyear is a mess. For a simple reason. One knows what it wants to do and say, the other keeps changing its mind.
Prey really isn’t about the monster. Sure, he’s present, he does a lot of gruesome murdering, so if you are a fan of the ‘series’, you’ll be satisfied. The script is really about the journey of the young Native American woman – Naru. She’s a well-defined character, with a very specific goal – she wants to be a warrior. She also has easily identifiable issues – she’s not great at the actual killing part of being a warrior.
Every scene, every interaction Naru has with the beast, with the white folks, and with her tribe, contributes to her growth and evolution. She learns and grows throughout the script until she eventually has the required skills and knowledge to try and take on the beast. So you aren’t just watching a bunch of macho violence, or even an old franchise with a native American woman shoved in to appeal to some sense of the cultural moment, with no thought on how it actually makes sense.
This makes sense. Watching Naru’s struggles, and growth, and how she feels about being overlooked by everyone, even the monster, elevates the script. It shows how with some careful thought and specific focus, you can revitalize a franchise, and build a compelling emotional journey into a violent action film. It’s no wonder the film has been super popular on Hulu.
Lightyear is almost the total reverse. I think there was an aim at some point to create a movie about the perils of being so focused on your career – you let your real life slip by. Not sure how that appeals to kids.
And then there are the ‘cheats’ littered throughout. A talking cat robot that solves literally every problem the writers had. Need Buzz to be tracked? Kitty. Need to cut a hole through a steel door? Kitty. And on and on and on. It’s lazy writing at its laziest in a script that either ignored the outline or didn’t bother with one.
Lightyear doesn’t know what it wants to say about the human experience. Or worse, it does, and that cultural comment is specifically aimed at middled-aged dudes working at Pixar. ‘Don’t work so hard dude.' How anyone thought that was a compelling emotional journey for an animated film tenuously linked to a historically popular family franchise is baffling. Two hundred million dollars needed a lot more thought before being spent.
The lesson from these two scripts – and I encourage you to watch them both – is easy.
It is crucially important to keep an eye on your audience when telling a story. Not the ‘industry audience,' an average audience member on the couch. What do you want them to feel in every scene? How is each scene contributing to the two stories you are telling – the surface level, and the subtext? Every scene.
Are you constructing something that gives the audience a satisfying emotional experience? No matter the genre. Because the success of Prey, both as a script and as a crowd pleaser is proof that infusing a script with a clear emotional journey makes a huge difference. And the failure of Lightyear proves what happens when you get it wrong. The audience may not be able to verbalize it like I just have, but they feel it and respond accordingly. Always remember that.