The new Pixar movie Lightyear is meant to be the blockbuster that spawned the Buzz Lightyear action figure Andy receives as a birthday present at the start of the original Toy Story. This premise has acquired an aura of franchise incomprehensibility, thanks in large part to an explanatory tweet from voice star Chris Evans that immediately went viral, as well as director Angus MacLane’s more recent insistence that the movie, though animated, is “live-action” within the Toy Story universe. But Lightyear isn’t actually that hard to understand. Movies and merch have a symbiotic relationship, with retail sales helping justify outrageous budgets, and studios mining toy lines for ideas — see the Transformers, the G.I. Joes, and soon, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Pixar made a beloved saga about the meaning that mass-produced plastic and even artful collections of garbage can have when they are the focus of a child’s love and imagination. Now they’ve backfilled this cycle by making their own cynical version of the sci-fi movie that inspired some of that consumer detritus, complete with a new highly collectible character in the sidekick Sox, a talking robotic cat.
The thing about Sox is that he’s endearing as fuck, though, as though Baymax were shaped like an adorable pet instead of a marshmallow. Voiced by The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn, Sox expresses the mechanical through the animal, chanting “meowmeowmeow” while making calculations and keeping a USB drive in the tip of his tail. Pixar is good at this, even when they’re putting out work that feels as off-puttingly calculated and visually underwhelming as Lightyear — which is “live action” in the sense that steers away from more fluid and figurative animation in favor of more grounded character design and movement. While the movie feels empty and pointless overall, it’s not without its scattered interesting elements. There’s Sox, and there is a moment when square-jawed galactic explorer Buzz finally reaches hyperspeed and the screen briefly goes all 2001. Most notably of all, there’s a sequence toward the beginning of the movie, after Buzz and fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) leave their massive spaceship to scout out a possibly inhabitable planet, only to get marooned following an encounter with the hostile native flora and fauna.
The 1200 passengers on the ship awaken from suspended animation and set to work mining the local resources to get airborne again, while Buzz — who was behind the crash that left them stranded — takes personal responsibility for the flights that test their homegrown fuel mixture. On his first attempt, he zips around a nearby star but fails to reach his target velocity, and returns to learn that because of time dilations, four years have passed back on the ground. Buildings have been erected, Alisha has gotten engaged to a woman on the science team, and Buzz has been assigned an apartment and a “personal companion robot” for company — Sox. Then he goes again, and again, and again, and with every return, more time has passed. A whole city gets built while Alisha is pregnant, then has a son, then sends him off to college, then goes gray, and then is gone. She leaves behind a hologram farewell message, a spunky granddaughter named Izzy (Keke Palmer), and a community that’s forgotten what the original mission Buzz is so determined to complete even is. It’s an incredible sequence, like a bleak (platonic) bookend to the marriage montage in Up, where instead of being a compressed testament to time spent together, it’s a summary of two people diverging as life passes one of them by.
It’s also unavoidably reminiscent of Interstellar, with the odd touch of Buzz being good enough at physics to calculate trajectories on the fly, while still surprised by the effects on his own timeline. Lightyear plays like a patchwork of science fiction and action-adventure texts, with a later reveal bringing to mind the Lost in Space movie from the late ‘90s. Needing by definition to be more conventional than the standard Pixar offering, while still being a Pixar movie, the film languishes in an awkward netherland. At its core is the issue of Buzz himself. In his toy form, voiced by Tim Allen, he was a lovable blowhard and a deluded parody of the kind of one-note character that, as voiced by Evans in Lightyear, he pretty much just is. Buzz has to learn some of the same lessons in Lightyear that his miniature avatar learns in Toy Story — to trust others, to not insist on going things alone to be the big hero. But he lacks any solidity, this blurry creation reverse engineered from the caricature, and surrounded, with the exception of Sox, by the least appealing set of supporting characters Pixar has ever coughed up, from the underdeveloped Izzy to the cowardly Mo (Taika Waititi) and hardened Darby (Dale Soules).
How do you make a good version of a movie that, in the context of the animated universe Pixar has created, sounds pretty bad? The better question is why you would need to in the first place. Pixar won a place in the hearts of adults as well as children by managing to make work that felt artistically daring, emotionally complex, and genuinely surprising in a medium of commercial animation that, because it’s expensive and requires many hands on deck, also tends to be corporate and compromised. Being a Pixar fan has meant watching the company (which was acquired by Disney in 2006) make increasingly complicated negotiations between art and commerce, with Lightyear being the most obvious of them all — a project that feels born out of notes to make something broader, less weird, and overtly engineered to appeal to boys. Much has been made of the way that the last three Pixar movies — which happened to be centered on a black character (Soul), to be lightly queer-coded (Luca), and to be about an Asian-Canadian tween and her mother (Turning Red) — were all shunted off to streaming over the course of the pandemic, while Lightyear is getting a theatrical release. But it feels just as important to note that those movies were, despite their varying degrees of success, all idiosyncratic and personal in a way that this new feature isn’t. The problem with Lightyear isn’t its convoluted place in the Toy Story series, but its lack of imagination, as though making something crowd-pleasing is synonymous with making something that feels cobbled together from the familiar.
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