Lightyear

2022 | PG | starring the voices of Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Josh Brolin, Isiah Whitlock Jr. | directed by Angus MacLane | 1 hr 40 mins |

{Contains Spoilers for ‘Lightyear’ and ‘The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part’}

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), on a secret mission in uncharted space, crashes a human colonization ship on a hostile alien planet. Lightyear’s attempts to reach lightspeed to get everyone home send him far into the future, where an alien race of robots lead be evil Emperor Zurg has enslave the stranded population.

I went through quite a few emotions and assessments during Lightyear before landing on complete and utter apathy. Most of those emotions in the film’s first act where all of it’s best ideas are. The first emotion however, was revulsion. When we first see Buzz Lightyear as a flesh and blood person (and not the toy who this character is based on that thought he was a person in Pixar’s modern classic Toy Story) the film immediately starts rattling through a rolodex of Buzz’s gadgets and catch phrases from the 1995 film. “No signs of intelligent life anywhere”. The film’s first impression is that it’s going to be eviscerating Toy Story for prequel parts.

Soon it shifts into the main story, which is where it had my admiration. I’ve always admired Pixar’s refusal to go for the easier and more obvious story. The old adage that writers are supposed to think of 10 ideas and then throw those out for 10 more – it seems like Pixar actually does it. People would have been perfectly happy with a movie about Buzz Lightyear having adventures across the cosmos, battling aliens on different world – instead Lightyear is a movie about an arrogant space ranger that immediately fails and spends his life grounded on the same planet, pushing him forward in time and facing the mortality of the very people he’s trying to save. Holy dark timeline. While I liked it, I doubt 8-year-old Toy Story Andy loved it.

Sending Buzz forward in time as he tries to make each FTL leap and seeing the changes in society is a fun premise right out of a Doctor Who episode. Then the movie drops him in a future conflict and leaves him there the rest of the film. Lightyear then shifts into neutral for the 2nd and third act. I had to think about this for a while because it was immediately unclear why Lightyear wasn’t popping the way other Pixar films do. It’s fine. It’s entertaining, but it’s mediocre. While it’s not their worst movie – The Good Dinosaur (cough) – this is a movie that could have been made by any other studio and not the one that released a Preston Sturges-level string of back-to-back classics.

It’s now that need to talk about the thing nobody will.

The Pixar movies being released now – mostly prequels and sequels calling back to their existing IPs – are noticeably different than the ones directed or overseen by former CEO John Lasseter. Lasseter, one of the founders of Pixar and the director of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life and Cars was clearly a guiding force in this studio’s quality control. Even sequels under Lasseter’s watch such as Toy Story 2 and managed to avoid sequelitis. In 2018 Lasseter was hit with MeToo allegations of “inappropriate hugging” and stepped down. While I’m not calling for Lasseter to be reinstated, watching Lightyear that line of demarcation between the pre-and-post Lasseter tenure seems the most obvious: Lightyear doesn’t build as a story. One of the joys of these movies is how they evolve and change as they proceed. Under current Disney controlled leadership it’s seems doubtful if Toy Story 2 would evolve into a tale of immortality, if Finding Nemo or Toy Story 3 would become prison escape films or if Wall-E would become a satire of future sloth. Nobody is pushing them to break from a great original premise and reform it. Instead we come up with a great premise and we milk it. That’s how Onward, Turning Red, Luca and even Toy Story 4 play out. Those movies all have individual moments of inspiration in the third act that bolster the films, from Onward’s protagonist shift to the melancholy Toy Sstory 4 to Turning Red’s crazy kaiju finale. Lightyear is the first of these big films that rolled into the third act with nothing left in the creative tank.

What Lighyear does have is a reveal about Buzz and Emperor Zurg, and while it’s not the same reveal as the Star Wars joke in Toy Story 2, it is just as derivative. In fact, it is exactly the plot twist played in jest in The Lego Movie 2. Except The Lego Movie is an irreverent breakdown of tropes. This is to be taken seriously.

A Buzz Lightyear movie that explored the arrogant space ranger and sent him on different, colorful adventures where he eventually learned humility would have been fun. Lightyear doesn’t want to have fun. It breaks Buzz down from the beginning and spends it’s time building him back up. It’s surprising and subverting expectations, but it’s not particularly satisfying.

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