Pixar rightly owes a lot of its success to the massive phenomenon of the original Toy Story in 1995. It wasn’t merely a cute family film, it was a sea change for the entire animation industry. So it only seems reasonable that, despite several other huge hits and Oscar winners, it’s a Toy Story character, specifically Buzz Lightyear, who would get a sort of semi-spinoff almost 30 years later. But while Lightyear plays like a fun, surprisingly heady science fiction adventure, its references (and subversions) of Toy Story lore actually hold it back from true greatness.
Buzz Lightyear is certainly the character Disney has gotten the most mileage out of since ’95. He has his own ride at Disneyland. He had his own animated series in the early 2000s. Buzz Lightyear was the coolest toy in the movie and remains the coolest to this day. So it certainly isn’t that they made a movie about the “real” Buzz Lightyear that’s the problem. More, it’s that too often it feels the need to call back to things we know from Toy Story.
Co-written and directed by Angus MacLane, Lightyear begins with a chyron telling us that *this* is the movie Andy watched that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy. That fact sort of doesn’t make sense given what we see later, but no matter. Buzz (Chris Evans) and his best friend, Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), begin on a scouting mission to find a habitable planet for their biodome ship of cryogenically frozen humans. The planet turns out to be hostile and Buzz, refusing any help, attempts to blast off but hits a mountain. The massive spaceship is grounded.
Buzz’s basic mission from here is to test various new fuel sources to see if any of them can reach hyperspace. The trouble is, each time he makes the four minute test flight, due to time dilation, four years pass on the planet. While everyone else has settled, he’s still trying to escape. His only friend, besides Alisha, is Sox, a cute robot kitty cat. (It wouldn’t be Pixar without a cute character the audience would die for.) Eventually he returns from a test flight to find the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his robot army occupying the planet. Can Buzz, and a team of rookies, save them?
As I said before, Lightyear has surprisingly deep sci-fi ideas. It plays a lot more like Interstellar than Star Wars in a lot of ways. Which is great! Buzz is a Flash Gordon-esque hero in an Arthur C. Clarke story. Excellent juxtaposition there. We also see a major theme of devoting so much to your work—or to just one idea of happiness and worth—that you miss what happiness you could find elsewhere. In 2022, that feels incredibly resonant. The movie sticks a finger in the eye of the “failure is not an option” idiom that plagues too many people. Failure, the movie reminds us, is a natural part of growing and learning. As Samuel Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Visually, Lightyear continues Pixar’s unmatched streak of truly gorgeous animated films. MacLane wanted to give the movie a “chunky” sci-fi quality from movies of the ’70s and ’80s. He really succeeded there. Each time Buzz returns from a test flight, the technology is that little bit different. The ships, flight suits, and user interfaces change incrementally during one of the best montages in the studio’s history.
Once Buzz reaches the very far future, during Zurg’s occupation, he meets a trio of volunteers who have managed to escape. We get Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s now-grown granddaughter; Mo (Taika Waititi) who is basically just Taika Waititi in a spacesuit; and Darby (Dale Soules), an elderly felon on a work release program. Buzz will of course need to learn to trust anyone but himself if this mission is to succeed, which leads to your inevitable character growth. Typical Pixar, but not in a bad way.
So then why do I have any misgivings? This is a solid sci-fi action movie with gorgeous visuals. Well, the movie lost me a little in two distinct ways. First, just the fact that they felt the need to say “this is the movie Andy watched in 1995,” because, respectfully, no it is not. They didn’t make anything like this in 1995. As far as I remember, the initial idea was that this was the “real” Buzz Lightyear, but I think they lost that thread and tried to make it make sense within the context of Toy Story. This may seem like a nitpick, but this is absolutely not a “movie-within-a-movie” when the whole idea of the toys’ mythology is that it’s silly Buck Rogers-style adventure serials. Too much of it is different in Lightyear for it to truly be that.
Second, and much more egregious honestly, is that it can’t get out of its own way in terms of referencing the things we saw in the Toy Story films. Buzz says the lines he says in Toy Story, but not just the lines his toy buttons say. He says the lines Buzz the toy says to Woody and the other toys. It didn’t feel like cute nods to the Pixar progenitor, it felt shoehorned just so we would go “Oh, I see why the toy said that.” WHO CARES? Once or twice is fine, but it happens throughout.
Yes, I am aware this is a legacy spinoff movie from a popular franchise, but the movie does such a great job of standing on its own two feet, it feels like needless nostalgia grab. This is not to say I didn’t appreciate some of the subtler visual nods—the “realistic” version of Buzz’s Space Ranger suit especially—but unlike a lot of Pixar movies, I was never lost in the world of the movie. Instead the movie got in the way of its own magic for “nudge nudge, wink wink” references and subversions.
Lightyear is ultimately a very fun, enjoyable summer flick. It has some tremendous visuals and Michael Giacchino’s score is typically superb. I just wish it had truly been a Buzz Lightyear adventure and not a movie referencing Buzz Lightyear adventures.
3.5 out of 5
Lightyear hits theaters June 17.