While watching Lightyear, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I was watching the second movie in a series and had accidentally skipped the first. Obviously, it is a spinoff, but just in terms of narrative and character motivation, there are a lot of gaps the film assumes we can fill, particularly about Buzz himself. We have four Toy Story features, a large handful of shorts, a Buzz Lightyear animated direct-to-video film, and a spinoff Buzz TV series, so on the surface this is a reasonable assumption.
But there’s a problem. Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 1 is really only interesting insofar as he believes he is a run-of-the-mill space ranger, amplified by Tim Allen’s self-satisfied everyman vocal performance. It’s the juxtaposition that makes Buzz Lightyear such an inspired creation. Both that juxtaposition and Allen’s performance are gone, the latter replaced by a cheap Chris Evans imitation that apes some of Allen’s tics but none of the flavor, adventure, or danger.
And so what we’re left with is an oddly empty protagonist, not helped by a script that seems to change its mind about three times about what Buzz’s main motivation is. The movie is a blockbuster, Marvel-flavored introduction to its protagonist, so if that’s not clicking, what’s left?
Certainly not a polished story. Lightyear has an odd, choppy structure: After an introductory action segment that shows a space base crashing crashing in the midst of a mission failure, the film’s next act tells a bizarrely melancholy, Forever War-esque story of time dilation and temporal displacement. It ostensibly sets the film’s stakes, but it’s told at such a brisk pace, almost in montage, that the movie never finds it footing.
This segment introduces Alisha Hawthorne, Buzz’s trusted mission partner, whose life he sees in snapshots as he burns years at a time via time dilation trying to escape a planet. You might know Alisha as the lesbian character whose same-sex marriage and kiss sparked a culture skirmish. I actually wish the character was straight, but for a totally different reason: had her connection with Buzz been quasi-romantic, it would have added an extra dimension to Buzz watching her fall in love, start a family, grow old, and die in snapshots; it might have added more self-sacrifice and road-not-taken pathos to Buzz’s obsession with finishing the mission as the world around him changes in the blink of an eye.
If this act of the story had been fleshed out and stretched to feature length, it might have been quite poignant. Instead, it comes and goes as the movie develops an identity crisis it will not shake by its conclusion.
Lightyear abrupty shifts during its second act to a more straightforward scrappy-underdog story. This is easily the movie’s best stretch (not its most interesting, but its most functional), though even it has plenty of hiccups. The bumbling comic relief moments are more miss than hit, and Buzz’s character is actively unpleasant in the way he spurns the “rookies”; there’s little chemistry among the disposable ragtag bunch. But there’s something to be said for Pixar’s world-class CGI magic turned towards sci-fi spectacle. It’s quite visually thrilling at times. There are excellent alien monsters and a couple of creative action set pieces.
Alas, the film lurches once more into one of the most brash plot twists I can recall watching in any kids movie as the second act enters the third. I admire the film for taking a swing, but it doesn’t remotely connect. It’s a cheeky bit of writing but it undermines any character development momentum up to that point.
The film is not devoid of charm: Lightyear has plenty of visual acumen, and I like the robot cat sidekick Sox quite a bit (even if the film uses the beat of Sox saving the day last-moment too many times). Some of the compositions and action scenes are excellent.
Yet Lightyear ultimately does far more wrong than right. Even Pixar at its safest and most forgettable has been no worse than solid entertainment; Lightyear is the studio’s biggest misfire since they cast Larry the Cable Guy as a lead.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film