Saturday, July 2, 2022


Of all of Pixar’s IPs, Toy Story is easily one of their most popular and the most expansive. Starting from the original 1995 film, Toy Story would go on to have four films, several shorts, a few specials and now two spin-offs focused on the character Buzz Lightyear, including the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command TV series. For over twenty years, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command served as Buzz Lightyear’s in-universe origin, showcasing his adventures as a Space Ranger fighting the evil Emperor Zurg. Now, in 2022, Pixar has released Lightyear, an in-universe film meant to serve as the new official origin for Buzz. While the idea behind creating and releasing an in-universe movie is an interesting one, the execution in this case leaves a lot to be desired.

Space Rangers Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), along with new recruit Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader), explore the planet T’Kani Prime. During the exploration, they’re attacked by hostile lifeforms and forced to retreat, but Buzz accidentally damages their vessel, stranding the crew inside until they can create a new hyperspace fuel. One year later, Buzz volunteers to test a new fuel that the crew’s colony has developed, only to discover that with every four-minute test, four years pass for everyone else. After enough tests, Buzz gains the attention of Zurg, who wants the fuel at any cost.

If there’s one thing you can’t fault Lightyear for, it’s the spectacular animation. With its unique balance of stylized characters against photorealistic backgrounds, the film maintains Pixar’s upward trend of visual quality, with other details showing how Pixar is still one of the best animation studios in the industry. Nothing feels overdesigned, but the characters strike a good balance of realism and familiarity. The food, whenever it shows up, is rendered very well and the textures on Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz’s robotic feline companion, are very convincing while his overall design still allows some amount of discernable expression. As a nice touch, each time Buzz skips forward another four years, the designs within the world around him change, which demonstrates a good sense of environmental narrative.

Lightyear's animation lives up to Pixar's usual standards.

Much like all of Pixar’s other films, the voice acting is also top notch. The main highlight here is, of course, Chris Evans, who plays the title character. Though I wasn’t sure at first how well he would pull it off, his take on Buzz Lightyear actually sounded appropriate and generally in line with the audience’s expectations. That said, comparisons with the character’s other voice actors are inevitable and I still generally prefer Tim Allen overall.

Unfortunately, the weakest aspect of Lightyear is its story. To its credit, it explores some interesting concepts like time dilation and its long-term effects and there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. However, it quite frankly fails at the mission statement spelled out within the first three lines.

For one thing, it’s hard to believe that the film as-is would have come out in 1995 or earlier. One big reason is that the in-universe film’s sensibilities on diversity and inclusion feel too modern for the time period. For example, while onscreen depictions of lesbian romances are relatively more common now, they wouldn’t have been featured so prominently, if at all, back then. Even discounting that, the film takes itself just a little too seriously to compel someone, especially a six-year-old, to buy toys. While toy-driven films from the 90s could still have a serious and emotional core, this one lacks the element of fun necessary to hook an audience on its characters and make the world and central conflict feel more engaging. As such, speaking from experience, it’s hard to believe that this would be a six-year-old’s favorite film, especially since it does a bad job at selling the audience on a Buzz Lightyear toy (I personally ended up wanting a Sox toy instead).

The film is better at selling Sox (Peter Sohn, left)
than Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans, right).

Out-of-universe, Lightyear has even more issues, mostly in relation to its place in the Toy Story franchise. Rather than coming off as something written for someone of Andy’s age, it feels written more for audiences who are already familiar with Toy Story. At times, it even copies certain familiar scenes and lines of dialogue, including those from Buzz’s formal introduction in Andy’s room. Though the very presence of Lightyear as an in-universe film already muddies the timeline a bit, the twist involving Zurg not only removes the mystique behind him, but also contradicts what the other films previously established, including the back of Buzz’s packaging in the original Toy Story and the relationship between Buzz and Zurg in Toy Story 2.

Outside of the awkward relationship with Toy Story, Lightyear has other noticeable writing fumbles. A particularly notable one is how instead of presenting Zurg as a real threat, the heroes often get into situations of their own making. Even after they free themselves, it feels like they hardly learn from them, as they continue making mistakes that put themselves in jeopardy. Additionally, there’s one detail during one of the time skips that may raise some eyebrows.

At this point, it’s also worth mentioning how Buzz’s character arc in Lightyear is very similar to the one he has in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. To explain, Buzz insists on working alone and loses his partner. Even after gaining a partner, or three, he still insists on flying solo and leaves the rookies to their own devices. He then comes around and realizes he needs help, which ultimately leads to him and the rookies working well enough as a team that they become his official partners moving forward. The main difference, however, is that the rookies in Lightyear aren’t as interesting or compelling as those in Star Command, nor is the central story as fun or engaging. If it means anything, I was also only a little older than Andy when Star Command first came out and I felt more compelled to buy its merchandise, including a Buzz Lightyear toy.

While Lightyear isn’t a terrible film, it’s definitely a big step down from Pixar’s usual level of quality and ultimately feels like an unnecessary entry in the Toy Story universe. If you’re looking for a good Buzz Lightyear-centric movie, then I would highly recommend watching Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins instead.

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