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Lightyear is one of Pixar’s most problematic and disappointing productions.

Toy Back Story

Buzz and the Space Rangers
Buzz and the Space Rangers

The premise is simple. Back in 1995 a little boy named Andy bought a Buzz Lightyear action figure, a toy based on the character starring in the boy’s all-time favorite movie. Lightyear, as the opening title card posits, is that movie.

Fine. That’s a good enough idea with an infinite number of possibilities. Throw in the prospect of an outer space Pixar adventure designed for large-format screens and it sounds like a movie that cannot possibly fail in this universe or any other.

But it does.

The story begins with Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Captain America himself, Chris Evans) and a team of Star Command Space Rangers stranded on a planet 4.2 million light-years from Earth. That is most definitely in a galaxy far, far away.

Buzz is determined to “complete the mission,” a mantra in the movie, but one that doesn’t lead to any particular payoff. In this case, completing the mission requires developing a fuel source and finding a way to blast into lightspeed so the team can travel back to Earth.

That initial setup is good and it plays in the sweet spot of Pixar’s best. Think about Up and the superb, wordless sequence in which Carl and his wife share a well-lived life full of sweet affection.

Here, Buzz goes through a series of failed speed tests, each flight taking a little less than five minutes as he boomerangs around the planet’s sun in an effort to hit a crucial threshold. But, while Buzz is only gone for several minutes, those back on the planet age by several years.

As he attempts the feat time and time again, vignettes very similar to Up play out. A best friend begins to date, gets married, has a kid. The kid grows up and graduates. The friend becomes infirm and hospitalized. It’s only 70 minutes for Buzz, but 70 years have transpired for the friend.

That’s a powerful, touching segment, but the rest of the movie doesn’t come close to matching it.

Four Square

There are three areas in which Lightyear struggles: culture, story and Zurg.

All of those struggles boil down to a betrayal of Pixar’s previously impeccable attention to detail and the very notion of the cultural trusts that Disney established going back to Moana, a notion that Pixar has also adopted to fairly and accurately represent cultural norms.

This is supposed to be the movie adventure that inspired the toy that Andy bought in 1995; it’s supposed to be Andy’s favorite childhood movie and yet there is no way this movie would’ve been released in 1995. Not simply in terms of technology or visual flair; Pixar will get some slack for being slick and using modern animation tools to make the humans look less plastic than they did in the original Toy Story (released, coincidentally, in 1995). The problem is the cultural intonations of the story are driven by a larger, modern agenda fueled by an unnecessarily woke mindset.

The point isn’t the centrality of a Black lesbian couple parenting a child in 2022; it’s that in 1995, that would not have been in a children’s movie. That’s purely a statement of fact, not the passing of a judgment.

Lightyear’s been banned from release in a number of countries — including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia — not just because of a same-sex kiss, but because of all the implications wordlessly portrayed in Lightyear’s most effective sequence, the one involving Buzz’s failed test flights and the longer passage of time back on the planet.

Given the effectiveness of the basic emotions driving that sequence, it’s debatable if the awareness raised by the controversy in this forum with its intended audience is worth it. Or, from a depressingly cynical point of view, maybe the controversy is a strategic play intended to distract from the movie’s shortcomings.

Interstellar Maverick: A Space Oddity

Buzz is a brainiac
Buzz is a brainiac

Lightyear’s other struggles revolve around the overall story and the treatment of Zurg. They’re not up to par by Pixar standards and as the movie unfolds, there’s a slight unease, a gnawing at the gut as the thought passes by that maybe this should’ve been a direct-to-streaming release. That’s oddly ironic, given Toy Story 2 (which features the debut of Zurg) was originally intended to be a video release before turning into a theatrical stunner that firmly established Toy Story as a much-beloved series.

For that matter, it’s a double-whammy considering the past few Pixar releases (Soul, Luca and Turning Red) were relegated to debuts on Disney+ during the pandemic. Lightyear should’ve signaled Pixar’s strong return to theatrical releases.

But it doesn’t.

Zurg enters the story while Buzz continues his test flights. The evil emperor (James Brolin, Catch Me If You Can) is on his own mission, but it’s not to dominate the colony, it’s to capture Buzz. The big reveal of what’s behind the dastardly character is a head-scratcher on two fronts. One is how it shores up with all that’s gone before in Toy Story lore as it relates to the character and Zurg’s own supposed back story. The other is the scientific logic used to explain how Zurg came to be. It’s something along the lines of Interstellar. Sorta.

Regardless, head-scratching is not a hallmark of Pixar movies. Wonder, magic, humor and emotional resonance are typically expected from a Pixar release, but those items have largely gotten lost in space. A huge opportunity to make the ultimate Pixar adventure romp and wrap it around an inspirational story that focuses on how brain power could take a child “to infinity and beyond” is wasted.

Zurg is an imposing, mysterious nemesis and doing anything to take away from that mystique is a big mistake. But there’s also something clever in his stance that could’ve worked much more effectively had the setting and timeline simply been steered away from 1995. While confronting Buzz, Zurg pushes back on “all these new ideas.”

Certainly, those aforementioned cultural norms and mores would factor into his argument, but they’re not the topic of his wrath. It’s embedded in an argument surrounding the idea of going back in time, to the golden, warmly glowing halcyon days when — seemingly — everything was right with the known universe. But it becomes clear the past isn’t really the panacea fond memories make it out to be and there’s something right, something beautiful about how things turn out in their natural order.

So, instead of being honest about the past, in Lightyear Pixar tries to rewrite it.