From Disney and Pixar Animation Studios comes Lightyear, an animated action-adventure film based on the spaceman doll Buzz Lightyear from the 1995 movie Toy Story. (Or, rather, based on the human who that toy is based on, blah blah blah, we’re all tired of this joke already.) Despite its baggage as a sideways spin-off from a beloved classic, Lightyear mostly functions as its own kid-friendly sci-fi movie, telling an original story fortified by some interesting themes. Tonally, Lightyear is about what you’d expect from a Pixar movie, with jokes aplenty and a few moments of shameless emotional manipulation, but it falls short in style department, lacking the personal touch that’s made the past few Pixar movies stand out in the crowded field of feature animation.
Time Keeps on Slippin’ (Slippin, Slippin, Slippin) into the Future
Captain Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger who, along with his friend and mentor Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), is assigned with protecting a research colony vessel. When the planet on which they’re supposed to settle turns out to be populated by hostile plants and giant bugs, Buzz’s determination to solve the problem on his own ends up stranding the entire colony. All out of the hyperspace crystals that they need to escape the planet, the colonists must create new ones from local minerals, but this process requires a lot of trial and error. Buzz is desperate to correct his mistake and volunteers for a series of test flights but, thanks to relativistic physics, every one-day mission for him lasts about four years on the planet below. This gives the colony’s scientists time to have the next iteration of the technology ready for him each time he returns, but it also allows everyone else the opportunity to move on with their lives. In the space of two weeks, Buzz catches snippets of the happy, fulfilling life that Alisha builds over the decades, while for him, the wound of his failure remains fresh.
So, when the generation born after the crash opts to abandon the escape mission and set down roots permanently, Buzz goes rogue for one last attempt. Landing in an even more distant future, he teams up with Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) and a team of misfits to save the colony from robot invaders led by the mysterious Zurg (James Brolin). As the danger mounts, the legendary Space Ranger must learn to work with an inexperienced team, live with his mistakes, and accept the ways in which the world has gone on without him.
Lightyear is a playful family adventure film with brisk plotting and a game voice cast, but it doesn’t hit as hard as a lot of other Pixar fare, either comically or emotionally. Lightyear made me chuckle, but not laugh out loud; I got misty, but I didn’t cry. Much of the humor is owed to Buzz’s emotional support cat robot, Sox (animator Peter Sohn), who’s like if Mr. Peanutbutter from Bojack Horseman was also a supercomputer. (And, y’know, a cat.) Fellow sidekicks, the cowardly “Mo” Morrison (Taika Watiti) and elderly convict Darby Steel (Dale Soules), are good for the occasional chortle but never steal the show. More valuable is the cute dynamic between Buzz and Izzy, whose attempts to replicate the magic Buzz and Alisha once shared always end in disaster. Buzz himself is the subject of mockery for talking like the protagonist of a mid-century pulp sci-fi movie; Toy Story implies that Buzz’s arch, Shatnerian affect is a product of the heightened fictional reality from which he hails, but Lightyear doesn’t aim for that sort of tone.
Instead, Lightyear does something a bit more interesting, deconstructing Buzz’s self-importance and his unwillingness to view his life as anything but a series of missions that he, the hero of the story, must complete. Buzz finds himself in a future where things are different but not necessarily worse, where his role as Space Ranger is no longer considered important and society didn’t fall apart as a result. Lightyear’s message is that change, even change that happens by accident, can be a beautiful thing. Just because things aren’t the way he left them doesn’t mean that they’re in the wrong place. It’s also no coincidence that Buzz, who is fixated on setting things back to the way they were while the rest of the colony builds a new life, is the movie’s only white man. He’s worried that not playing the prominent role in society that he’s used to means that he’ll no longer matter, but saving the day one last time means recognizing this mindset as selfish and condescending.
To Mid-finity and Beyond
Though Lightyear has plenty going on under the hood, it’s fairly unremarkable on a stylistic level. In comparison to the past few Pixar releases (Turning Red, Luca, Soul), Lightyear lacks a strong visual identity. That’s not to say that it’s a bad-looking movie, but in a landscape of feature animation that’s growing increasingly competitive and imaginative, Lightyear ends up looking generic. Very little would be lost if it was made in live-action, and that’s not a compliment.
The technical prowess of Team Pixar is unimpeachable, but there are no shots that truly wow, and that comes down to lack of vision. There simply aren’t many interesting choices being made in the design or direction of the film. The space-age technology is descended from 2008’s WALL-E and the characters designs don’t stray far from the standard Disney parameters. (Buzz’s big toe head, inherited from his toy likeness, is the only significant deviation.) Nothing about the setting, creatures, or robots is terribly memorable either. None of this poisons the viewing experience, but it does make it feel more manufactured than its closest Pixar siblings, which read as much more personal films. Lightyear’s plastic feeling may be a deliberate choice, given its reverse-legacy as a toyetic intellectual property, but if so, director Angus MacLane does not lean in enough for it to read as clever.
Lightyear doesn’t make much of a show of its connection to Toy Story, mostly functioning as its own film. In general, I’m very much in favor of this decision, as the last thing American cinema needs is another movie that only makes sense if you’ve seen four other movies. However, Lightyear’s one direct reference to its existence in the Toy Story universe represents an interesting road not taken. The film opens with a series of title cards explaining that, in 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie for his birthday, and that Lightyear is that movie. This was presumably added in response to star Chris Evans’ confusing explanation of the film’s premise way back in December 2020, which quickly became a meme. While this allows for some cute metatextuality (a few lines of toy-Buzz’s dialogue retroactively become phrases he’s parotting from the movie) it’s also a completely unnecessary wrinkle that introduces the movie’s best, totally unused idea:
What if Lightyear looked and felt like a blockbuster from 1995? What if its script, production design, and directorial style aped the trends of that era? Further, what if it was nakedly, comically toyetic, presaging that its primary legacy is a wildly popular doll? Committing to the context in which Lightyear is supposed to exist could give it a clear (if second-hand) stylistic direction and an extra layer of comedy. Sure, this would go over the heads of a young audience, but the same could be said of the Fellini vibes in Luca.
Putting out two movies in one year built around millennial nostalgia (the other being Turning Red) might also read as cheap or lazy, but even so, a gimmick like this might have helped give Lightyear some more personality. Director Angus MacLane has said that, though his priority was making a modern film, he imagines Lightyear being made around 1986, with the toy frenzy being the result of an animated spin-off in the Nineties. Respectfully, I don’t think this comes across in the finished product at all. Going noticeably retro would have been a shortcut to style, a crutch on which a filmmaker should not need to rely, but seeing as as their attempt at modernity only resulted in blandness, MacLane and company would probably have benefitted from leaning on it.
As much as a critic shouldn’t waste time complaining about what a movie isn’t rather than opining about what it is, this isn’t me projecting my idea of what Lightyear should be. It’s their idea, tacked onto the front of the movie and then totally ignored. The film in no way benefits from this explanation of what this film means to Andy, a character who plays no role in it whatsoever. All it does is create an expectation that the storytellers have no intention of paying off, distracting from the rest of the entirely adequate product that follows. Frankly, I’m annoyed at how much time and energy I’ve put into thinking about this, but I’ve thought of little else since I saw the film. That’s not really fair to Lightyear, a perfectly enjoyable animated adventure in its own right, but that’s also the cost of franchise filmmaking. If you want the benefits of instant recognition and inherited clout, you also have to cope with the complications, and in this regard, Lightyear plays itself.