Last year, I noted in my review of The Last Duel that a lot of goodwill in that film was squandered by an inappropriately manipulative bit of on-screen text. In that particular case, a story that delved into the nuance of personal perspective when it came to a serious crime that led to a duel to the death was essentially rendered moot by a title card that told us that the entire first two acts were meaningless fiction. It was enough to take a movie that I started to feel deserved Best Picture consideration and reduce it to merely being “very good.” Perhaps because of this, the Academy ignored it completely.
A similar problem occurs with Lightyear, the second Pixar release this year, though one that admittedly does not have the same level of stakes as Ridley Scott’s medieval drama. It’s a harmless enough movie with a fairly rote space opera story and some pretty decent visuals (it’s the first Pixar movie to be “filmed” in IMAX; I saw it on a standard screen in 3D and didn’t feel any extra intensity for whatever that’s worth), and if that’s all you’re interested in, you’ll enjoy yourself. I was certainly never bored with the thing.
But in the latest example of Disney trying to turn everything into a “cinematic universe” where all the existing IP has to self-reference, the film makes an odd and ultimately detrimental decision via screen text very early on. In doing so, it takes a film that was inessential but fun and turned it into something approaching crass mediocrity, because once again, someone somewhere thought they had a clever idea, and either no one questioned it, or anyone who did was shot down for doing so, because even the most basic scrutiny ruins the underlying conceit of the movie.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I was skeptical of this project from the very beginning. I make no secret that I think Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end the flagship franchise of Pixar, going out on an emotional note that could never be equaled. That ending had to be undone for the sake of Toy Story 4, which was sincere in parts, but did feel like a cynical cash grab. The idea of giving Buzz Lightyear his own movie (especially after there was already an animated TV show and movie 20 years ago) felt like overkill, and crept dangerously close to the Cars franchise in terms of existing solely to sell merchandise, a thematic full circle akin to a snake eating its own tail, in that the original movie was about toys but not directly designed to sell them.
The film’s opening text, sadly, confirmed those worst fears. Before the first frame of the story, Disney and Pixar decide to give us this lovely bit of context for a movie that no one needed. “In 1995, a boy named Andy received a Buzz Lightyear doll for his birthday. It was a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”
Let’s break this down, shall we? By saying that this was Andy’s favorite movie, you’re telling the audience directly that Buzz only exists because of a popular movie, and that movies should only exist to sell stuff. Further, you’re telling the adults in the audience that if their kids like this movie, you have to prove your love for them by buying more toys, so they can feel like Andy. Fuck you.
But even outside of that craven display of capitalism, making this movie Andy’s favorite from his childhood raises a lot of meta questions about the series continuity that just scream that no one gave this idea a bit of thought. For one, Toy Story was the first feature length CGI animated film when it came out in 1995. Now, the creators here think it’s cute to reference the year of that movie’s release, but then they show us a new project with vastly more advanced animation techniques, including the aforementioned IMAX formatting. There’s no way Andy could have seen THIS movie 27 years ago. It is literally not possible, unless he lives in a universe well beyond our technological understanding. I mean, Disney owns Star Wars now, so they should know that it’s a bad idea for your prequel to outpace your original from a tech standpoint.
Going further, there’s a bunch of stuff within the movie itself that just wouldn’t make sense given what we know about Andy as a character. Yes, this is Buzz’s film chiefly, but the story features an ensemble cast, and do you really think Andy would have just keyed in on Buzz? Sure he may only have gotten a Buzz doll to play with, but there’s no way this film would have been marketed in a manner where Andy could also get a bunch of posters and bedsheets that only feature Buzz, rather than, say, the robotic talking cat (itself a 90s reference as its name is Sox, a play on both baseball and Bill Clinton’s cat in the White House at the time, voiced by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn). It also makes little sense that this film’s Buzz, voiced by Chris Evans, would be a somewhat dickish soldier with a genuine sense of duty, honor, and empathy for his crewmates (so much so that the entire film is about him trying to correct a mistake), while the Buzz we’ve all known and loved since ’95 is Tim Allen voicing an oblivious peacock hungry for adventure. The two characters are almost diametrically opposed.
Hell, half the characters in this film would not have remotely existed if this film came out in 1995. The cast would almost certainly not be multicultural (a symptom of many problems with the industry back then that are only just now being addressed), and beyond that, there is no way there would be a married lesbian couple. For the record, I am glad that Disney and Pixar reinserted the explicit scenes of Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) having a wife and even kissing her on screen as a middle finger to Florida and Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law. I am 100% on board with that. But in the context created by the opening text, it doesn’t track. Gay marriage wasn’t legalized in a single state until Massachusetts did it in 2004, and the Obergefell decision that legalized it nationwide didn’t occur until 2015. So what film could have possibly come out in 1995 that featured an animated, MARRIED lesbian couple, especially one that the MPAA would have approved for children as young as Andy to see?
Finally, as would be expected, the main antagonist of the film is Zurg (called a captain rather than an Emperor), voiced by James Brolin. It makes sense, as Zurg has always been depicted as Buzz’s nemesis, and in Toy Story 2, his Darth Vader-esque father. However, this film utterly contradicts the established dynamic between Buzz and Zurg as we’ve seen throughout the Toy Story continuity. I won’t spoil how they did it, but believe me, they did it. So again, how could Andy have seen this movie in 1995 but have the toys based on it not correspond to what it establishes?
And while I’m pointing out these issues, let me be clear that this idea could have worked. If Pixar really wanted to tie this in as a spinoff of the main series, there was a perfectly easy way to do it that would have alleviated all these problems and still accomplished what seems to be the real goal of selling more product. If you want this to be linked to Andy, fine, but link it to an adult Andy. Have him take his kids to the movie. Have him share his own nostalgia with them, and tell them how important Buzz was to him as a child, and how excited he is to see a new adventure and experience it with the next generation. Problem solved. You can alter continuity, celebrate diversity in ways 1995 wouldn’t allow, and the advanced animation techniques make complete sense.
Now that I’ve spent several paragraphs on the first 30 seconds of the film, what about the actual story? Is it worth any attention? I’d say yes. Honestly, if this was just a sci-fi adventure with no link to Buzz or the larger Toy Story mythos, I would say it’s perfectly adequate. Featuring a slew of genre references from Star Trek-style mission logs to a “turnip”-shaped spacecraft that looks suspiciously like the one from E.T., the overall story is entertaining.
While on a long journey back to Earth, where the entire crew is in stasis (call that a reference to Alien, 2001, or both), Buzz and Alisha are woken up when the computer alerts them to the presence of an unexplored planet. They divert the ship long enough to see if the planet is hospitable, and to establish that Buzz doesn’t handle junior officers that well (Bill Hader as the eye roll-inducing Cadet Featheringhamstan, who was also somehow woken up from stasis for reasons known but to the screenwriter). The indigenous lifeforms, both plant and insect, turn out to be hostile, and in an attempt to escape, Buzz damages the ship and destroys their hyperdrive, forcing the entire crew to set up a base and spend years trying to find a stable mixture of the planet’s resources to create a new one.
Buzz volunteers to be the test pilot, feeling a sense of guilt and responsibility for marooning his colleagues, and there is limited success. However, the attempts to travel at close to light speed cause a phenomenon called time dilation (the one scientific concept the movie gets right, so hopefully you won’t laugh your ass off when Buzz holds up a spaceship burning up on reentry but doesn’t die), so that while each flight only takes a few minutes for Buzz, on the planet, everyone ages several years.
After one final flight, Buzz returns to find the base surrounded by a laser shield, installed after an invasion of robots led by Zurg. Buzz has to land in the wilderness, where he meets three junior cadets led by Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer). It’s their goal to destroy Zurg’s ship, thus ending the robot threat, so that Buzz can get the new hyperdrive crystal into the “turnip” and get them all home at last.
There’s a solid premise there, along with some intriguing exploration of regret and hubris. It doesn’t always land, and doesn’t have nearly the emotional heft as the best of Pixar’s output, plus it doesn’t help that most of the comedic antics (supplied by an elderly explosives expert voiced by Dale Soules and a complete klutz of a rookie voiced by Taika Waititi) come off more annoying than funny, especially when you can pinpoint the exact moment when their collective inexperience will cause yet another delay. For a film that’s barely over 90 minutes, it drags immensely because of these Jar-Jar-esque physical bits that only stymie the film’s progress.
On the whole, though, there is value in the story. There are lessons to be learned, Buzz and Izzy get some decent development, and yes, Sox is objectively adorable and hilarious (which only furthers my point that there’s no way in Hell Andy would have only been interested in Buzz if this was the movie he saw). It’s nothing special, definitely mid-to-bottom tier Pixar, but that’s still head and shoulders above the majority of animated output from most other studios.
But like I said, our introduction to this film is three sentences of utterly nonsensical bullshit that sets an impossibly illogical tone for everything that follows. It could have worked if anyone had given it a second thought and realized there was a better direction to go. Instead, it feels like something that came up in the first draft and got pitched as “We can make MONEY off this,” so no one said a thing, and it damn near ruins the entire picture.
There are incremental levels to the enjoyment and quality of a film like this. At the top is a strong space story with a decent moral that has nothing to do with Buzz Lightyear, and thus can be reasonably advertised as a new idea and a new direction for Pixar. Right below that is the movie by itself, minus any other connection to the Toy Story continuity. Just let it be a Buzz Lightyear story on its own, knowing that the audience can make the connections in their heads. Below that is one that ties back to Andy, but as an adult seeing the movie with his own kids and accomplishing the marketing goal while still maintaining some semblance of narrative logic.
At the bottom is the version of the movie that we got, a turn-off-your-brain distraction that’s inoffensive and inessential, and honestly doesn’t feel like a Pixar film, made even worse by a silly attempt to tug at heartstrings through text and somehow make this a prequel for the entire studio, all so Disney can self-perpetuate its merchandising. This film could have gone “to infinity and beyond.” Instead it almost becomes the Pixar equivalent of The Phantom Menace.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? When will Pixar get back to making game-changing movies again? How weird is it that THIS movie was the one to finally get Pixar back in theatres instead of being dumped to Disney+? Let me know!