Lightyear Falls Short of Pixar's Golden Standard
The idea behind Lightyear is simple. It’s the movie that Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story is based on. The movie opens with this preamble, stating that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie, which is a little bit meta because there are now actually Buzz Lightyear toys based on Lightyear.
In 1995, Andy’s mom bought him a Buzz Lightyear toy after they watched the film, but the movie just came out this 2022, so it’s like the film actually comes from the future. Or was Toy Story actually set in 2022? Never mind. It’s actually time-hopping hijinks like this that are part of what makes Lightyear both melancholy and maddening, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Lightyear follows the story of space rangers Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his partner Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) after they get trapped on a strange planet and try to return to earth. In order to do that, however, they need to achieve hyper-speed, so Buzz flies off into space in his jet to test a power source that will allow them to do just that.
Delightfully, the film goes hard into physics and relativity by making full use of time dilation, so that whenever Buzz goes off on a mission and approaches light speed, he returns to find that about four years have passed for his stranded crew mates compared to mere minutes for him. You’d think that the physicists in this accidental colony would’ve figured something like that would happen, but they keep sending Buzz away, anyway.
This whole jumping forward in time takes up about half the film, as Buzz, determined to make up for what he considers to be his fault, keeps flying into space with different fuel cells and returning years later while not having aged himself. He’s literally fast-forwarding through everyone’s lives, which is actually kind of deeply psychotic if you pause long enough to think about it (which Buzz clearly didn’t) because every time he returns, his best friend gets older and older until one day she inevitably is no longer there.
This results in Buzz missing out on key moments of his best friend’s life, from her marriage to her having a child to her having a grandchild and eventually to her being bedridden in her old age. Buzz may be a dedicated space ranger but he’s a pretty terrible friend.
It also begs the question that if hyperspace travel dilates time so much, what does the crew expect to find if they do manage to get back to earth? Buzz loses four years just zipping around just outside the atmosphere. If the crew does blast off their entire ship and return home, time dilation guarantees that they won’t find anyone they know still alive, or if society will even be recognizable if it still exists at all. Most audiences probably won’t ask these questions, but when you infuse a film with accurate physics, most probably should.
One of the things that stand out in the film, but ironically shouldn’t, is the long overdue normalization of gay relationships. Alisha gets married to a woman and the film treats it as merely part of the status quo, which is absolutely refreshing. It’s one small step for man but one giant leap for mankind as far as Disney is concerned, and despite the film being banned from homophobic territories, I hope this means even more inclusivity in Disney films from hereon.
Because of his dogged perseverance, Buzz eventually manages to achieve hyper-speed but returns to earth some 22 years later and finds the colony under attack from robots led by the familiar Emperor Zurg from Toy Story (or is Zurg from Lightyear? It’s a chicken or the egg kind of thing). He serendipitously bumps into Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter, and her merry band of misfits, Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel (Dale Soules) and they try to fend off the robot invasion.
Oh, and there’s a robot cat, voiced by Pixar’s own Peter Sohn (who is directing Pixar’s next feature film, Elemental). Sox the robot cat is the film’s deliberate cute factor and you kind of wonder why Andy or his sister didn’t get a Sox plushie along with the Buzz action figure. There are Sox toys available today, though, so you can buy for your kids (or yourself) what Andy missed out on.
This sort of prequel to Toy Story reveals the origin of Buzz’s catchphrase, “to infinity and beyond,” as well as his penchant for monologuing like a Star Trek officer. We get to meet Zurg and finally get to see who’s under the mask. We even get to see Buzz’s signature wings in a climactic moment, ticking all the boxes for an origin story.
The set-up, catapulting our hero forward in time to the detriment of his relationships, feels a little too heavy for a children’s film. But Lightyear is an allegory for living life in the moment and not allowing it to pass you by. It’s an on-the-nose reminder to celebrate friends and family, packaged in a sleek, sci-fi adventure epic. It doesn’t have the emotional gravity of Pixar’s best and definitely falls short of Toy Story standards, but it’s solidly entertaining.
With Pixar doing spin-offs like this, does this mean we’ll get some retro puppet shorts in grainy sepia on Disney+ for Woody’s origin story? Ironically, giving Buzz Lightyear—or any of the Toy Story toys—an origin diminishes his character in Toy Story somewhat because it dampens the emotional punch of his self-awareness. As enjoyable as it can be, hopefully, Lightyear doesn’t indicate a trend to mining Pixar’s IP for stories that don’t need telling. Lightyear is adequate family fare that has some joyous moments but it’s a story that falls below Pixar’s golden standard. More films like this and it’ll be to mediocrity and beyond.