I’m not a fan of saying that a movie has to justify its existence. Movies are made by huge groups of people who put lots of work into an eventual cumulative piece of art. And from that, movies can have something interesting or profound to say, as well as something exciting to show. But when a movie is so obviously corporately motivated, it’s difficult to say that the movie has justified its existence. This is the case for Lightyear.
The film’s opening text states, “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” And thus, it positions itself in a really weird state where it should feel like a ‘90s movie and be consistent with what we know about the character of Buzz Lightyear. As for the former, it doesn’t at all; it feels like the type of cynical franchise mining that has generally eluded Pixar. And as for the latter, it actually does that for the most part, with one major exception, which I won’t spoil here. So from the beginning, it creates specific expectations which ultimately work against it.
But the Buzz Lightyear in Lightyear, while not the exact same character as the one voiced by Tim Allen in the Toy Story movies, has many of the character traits we’ve seen from him before. This time voiced by Chris Evans, Buzz is cocky, self-assured, and only really looks out for himself. In fact, his character arc in this new film is quite similar to that of the original Toy Story, or to quote something more recent, Top Gun: Maverick. It’s actually so similar in plot structure and so dissimilar in overall quality, that I found myself wishing I’d just bought another ticket to see Maverick instead of seeing the retread story of the beloved space ranger.
Because the fact of the matter is, Lightyear just isn’t that engaging. When Pixar is at its best (which is, like, 15 out of its 26 total movies), the movies it produces work for both children and adults alike. But here, unless you’re really feeling that pull of nostalgia, if you’re an adult, this movie probably won’t work for you. There’s an attempt at making an Up-like montage towards the beginning, but it doesn’t infuse any of that montage with the visual or emotional weight that Up itself is infused with. While Lightyear‘s animation does look better than most mainstream animated movies, that really isn’t saying much. Plus, every vibrantly colorful shot of Buzz in light speed or wide shot of a ship landing on a planet’s surface is only really impressive on the that very surface. From beginning to end, Lightyear is just aggressively bland and average.
Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi), and Darby (Dale Soules) are the three misfits we spend the most time with thanks to Buzz being a man out of time after Interstellar-like time dilation and relativism. Besides Buzz, each character is barely one-note, and we barely get to learn anything about them besides their quips, which at this point is par for the course for modern Disney films. Waititi has made some great movies, and he’s given some great performances in those movies, but after this and Free Guy, I’m more inclined to say that he should preserve his acting for when he also has a hand in the behind-the-scenes planning of the film. And the robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) reeks more of an attempt at Pixar’s Baby Yoda than a narratively motivated character. For a movie that’s trying to do character-based comedy, it falls woefully short.
Concurrently, the time dilation is an interesting idea, but director and co-writer Angus MacLane doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, because it never completely clicks thematically or narratively. It gives the movie an exciting “thing”, but not much else. And to couple those concepts with the thin-as-paper characters and plot points that just happen because they need to happen in that moment robs the movie of any real tension, excitement, or stakes. The characters aren’t interesting, and the plot machinations are mostly baffling.
Since Lightyear simply turned out to be a corporate product designed to trigger nostalgia and sell merchandise, instead of a film with its own unique, dramatic, and emotional weight, it doesn’t justify its own existence. From 2013 until 2019, five of Pixar’s eight movies were either sequels or prequels to existing IPs. It was a rough stretch for original concepts (though it did include Inside Out and Coco. Since the beginning of 2020, they’ve had a run of four straight original ideas that have each been good-to-great in their own right (Soul and Luca were personal favorites). Unfortunately, we’re now right back at square one with Lightyear bringing to a halt this solid little run. Its half-hearted attempt at Pixar’s existentialism fell flat — hopefully this is only an aberration.