After a decade of numerous lacklustre sequels, it was a relief to see Pixar Animation Studios deliver three genuinely great films in a row over the last five years with ‘Soul’ (2020), ‘Luca’ (2021) and ‘Turning Red’ (2022). The fact that all of these beautifully crafted, visually stunning and incredibly imaginative films were relegated to streaming on Disney+ without a theatrical release was only tempered by them being somewhat of a return to form for a once-great studio which seemed to have lost its way. This makes the arrival of their latest film, ‘Lightyear’, all the more frustrating. After so much originality, we’re back to another franchise entry, further expanding on the 'Toy Story' universe with a film focused on the fictional origins of one of its central toy characters. The idea of a Buzz Lightyear film in the style of a sci-fi action adventure isn’t a bad one per se, but it does leave one sceptical about what this film has to offer that we haven’t seen before.
The film begins with the context that this is the film Andy would have seen in 1995 that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. We’ll get back to this, but it at least clears up what this film is in a clean, concise manner. In this adventure, Space Ranger Buzz (Chris Evans, ‘Knives Out’) is in a bit of a pickle when he accidentally crash lands the human colony he and his co-Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, TV's ‘Orange is the New Black’) have been tasked with leading to a new home on a barely habitable planet of giant bugs and rambunctious plants. With their hyperspace crystal damaged, Buzz takes charge in testing new technologies to get them home, but discovers that every attempt makes him jump four years into the future. On his final successful attempt, he returns to find Alisha gone and the colony under siege from a robot army led by the mysterious figure Zurg (James Brolin, ‘The Amityville Horror’). With only a group of ragtag trainees to help led by Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer, ‘Hustlers’) and his loyal robot cat SOX (Peter Sohn, ‘Ratatouille’), Buzz needs to defeat Zurg, return the new crystal to the ship, and make up for the mistakes of his past.
There’s always been something uncomfortable about the idea of a Pixar film as a purely commercial venture. That’s not to say that financial success hasn’t always factored into their decisions, but narrative and emotional integrity form the backbone of their best work. With ‘Lightyear’, that commercial concern sits right at the forefront. It isn’t as woeful or blatant as the 'Cars' sequels, but even after the credits have started rolling, it’s hard to see what purpose this film serves other than as easily digestible entertainment fodder. The central conflict of Buzz needing to atone for his mistakes wears thin pretty fast, and there isn’t enough meat on the bones of the film to carry it through to its (strangely confusing) climax.
We can take it as a given that the quality of the animation is stunning (even the interminable ‘Onward’ (2020) was nice to look at), but no amount of visual finesse can overcome narrative or character deficiencies. The setup in the first act is perhaps a bold one, with almost all the characters you’ve just met ageing and disappearing within minutes. It’s too much story too quickly, leaving the rest of the film to slow to a plodding pace, with competently executed action set-pieces devoid of genuine drive or tension. It never feels like the film is driving towards anything, or really knows where it’s going in the first place. Evans brings all his natural charm to Buzz, but it’s a performance and a character in a tug-of-war between what we know of Lightyear from Tim Allen’s performance in the original films and the need for Buzz to be the genuine heroic lead of a sci-fi action film. Perhaps there was an assumption that we’d already have an established relationship with this character, but this isn’t the Buzz Lightyear with Andy’s name written on his foot, the one whose identity crisis was both wonderfully ridiculous and surprisingly relatable. The conflict for this Buzz simply isn’t that interesting, and with the exception of SOX, the film doesn’t actually give him anyone to play off. Izzy is a lovely character (especially with Palmer’s playful performance), but the rest of the team (including an inexplicable Taika Waititi, whom Americans seem to have decided is the only person that exists from New Zealand) are surprisingly low-key and make little impression.
Right when the film should be shifting into the next gear, it slows down even further and we are subjected to another morose scene of Buzz lamenting his past mistakes.
There’s also the presence of the dreaded Pixar Algorithm - that horrid trope that reared its ugly head in the wake of ‘Up!’ (2009) where they insist on shoehorning in moments of manufactured emotion and profundity for no other purpose than to make you cry. ‘Soul’, ‘Luca’ and ‘Turning Red’ kept this bad habit at bay, but it makes an unwelcome return in ‘Lightyear’. Right when the film should be shifting into the next gear, it slows down even further and we are subjected to another morose scene of Buzz lamenting his past mistakes. There’s also a baffling third act twist that seems to think it has something profound to say but just complicates the plot even further. The presence of the Algorithm isn’t as manipulative as in ‘Coco’ (2017) or ‘Onward’, but at least in ‘Coco’ it had some life to it. Here, it doesn’t even feel like they’re trying. These moments are almost always unearned, but this film doesn’t even seem to be pretending to try and earn them.
This brings up the issue then of the conceit that this would have been Andy’s favourite film in 1995. It’s hard to imagine any child - even in 2022 - getting too caught up in the thrill of this thing, when bombastic fun seems secondary to... whatever it is this film is trying to do. I’m not going to argue that this film should have pulled on the rhythms or humour of 1995 cinema (nostalgia is a plague that is ruining popular culture enough as it is), but this doesn’t feel like a film pitched at 8-year-old boys as it claims, certainly not in the glorious way ‘Turning Red’ was so perfectly pitched at young teenage girls. Maybe if it had been faster or louder or sillier, it might have achieved that as a purpose, but there are too many wheels spinning in ‘Lightyear’ to hold even adult attention, let alone a child now used to the endless bombast of bright and modern superhero blockbusters.
It’s really hard to know what to make of ‘Lightyear’. It feels somehow more unnecessary than ‘Toy Story 4’ (2019), adding nothing to the legacy of the series or of its main character. Maybe it’s supposed to work as just a good old-fashioned piece of fun entertainment, but it isn’t even fun enough to do that. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of film you feel slipping through the cracks of your memory as you walk out of the doors of the cinema - a low-tier Pixar film that bears the smudgy, heavy-handed fingerprints of Disney’s commercial needs more than any film Pixar have made in a while. In hindsight, ‘Lightyear’ could have been a breezy, silly, bouncy sci-fi film for kids, the kind that makes them fall in love with space and adventure with some great morals about self-worth and teamwork thrown in. What we have instead is Buzz Lightyear wandering around a wilderness with no direction home, literally and metaphorically, reaching neither infinity nor beyond.