The root of Buzz Lightyear’s character is his disillusionment. That’s the toy. The toy of Buzz Lightyear is dropped out of place and time, an action movie hero that’s become a toy, still devoted to his ultimate meta mission, in the toy’s original fiction. The Lightyear of the titular movie is not and won’t become disillusioned. It may as well be any other character. It is a different character, after all, one is a toy, one is an animated children’s character. But both are also that. Both are animated characters based on this property to sell toys, that is our context of understanding for both characters. One is the toy and that is interesting because a child’s imagination and whole world of playtime can be projected onto him. The Buzz that the animated movie Toy Story‘s Andy must have loved, gets to exhibit a broader range of emotions. Like in the Toy Story movies, he is still lost, and some of his path is about disillusionment, but the movie has no irony about that plotting, now it is made the literal text: here is the ultimate Space Ranger marketed to children and his journey across time and space. Now we know about the character and who he is but we did not need to know. It was more interesting not to know. Here, we enter the great contradiction of expanding our context of understanding for beloved characters and the faulty commercially driven logic of why they need origin stories and how to make them.
What we need and what we get from origin stories is often different. What we need is also nebulous. What would that even mean, dear reader? We already have a direct-to-video origin story and an animated television series detailing Buzz’s origins. Certainly this feels more of a piece with these secondary franchise materials. It may be the first of the last several Pixar films slated for theaters, after the wonderful what-if-feelings-could-transform series were each sadly constricted to Disney Plus, but it is also the least essential to see projected. A small screen would do just as well.
Sure, you can go see it in IMAX. If you’re really moved to go do that. Perhaps you would see every Pixar movie on the big screen if you could. That idea could hardly be faulted. They remain great magicians of the craft but their spells have never been less magical. As Lightyear shifts toward more realistic proportions, besides Buzz’s bulbous and perfectly dimpled face, the animation no longer captivates so much as it behaves exactly as it should. There aren’t any surprises in it. The animation is more nuanced, still the work of the most talented team of animators, but now, crafted with such subtlety and care for precision, that it hardly needs to be animated anymore. It could be live action. There is nothing here that isn’t being done in the leagues of science fiction made for the screen. Pixar have finally made something that resembles everything else that has been made in their chosen space, a mediocre choice for a studio so immensely capable, where the craft is evident, but what it’s executing on is not formally interesting presented as animation. Especially in parallel to the great transformation trilogy before it, Lightyear feels like a cynical choice.
If the move to premier Pixar’s films digitally was something of a fait accompli for the employees of the animation house, who were vocally against the move, but ultimately, not in charge of the call, it makes matters worse that their return to theaters is their film which feels the most begrudgingly accepting of corporate oversights. Not since the Cars trilogy has their work felt so motivated by the sale of toys. After the character was notably sidelined in Toy Story 4 (2019) to tell a more Woody-centric story, the feeling is that Disney still needs to create a market for Buzz toys. They needed to replace the politically precarious associations of Tim Allen, a Trump supporter, with someone less culturally arduous like Chris Evans, a noted anti-Trump personality. Now it is safe to sell toys again. And beautifully, the film gets to double down on its more progressive hero building. We do get a same sex kiss. The mark against Disney has often been that they will imply same sex relationships but rarely show any physical contact, thus further normalizing them. Lightyear does, and for that, it is a move forward for the company.
The characters also feel like genuine constructions, outside Buzz, who sells action figures. Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer) gets to be the center of the film’s plot and progression. Black, gay, and the most important figure of the film, Hawthrone moves beyond more cynical inclusivity clauses, and just feels a part of this world. It’s Buzz’s entire motive, to ensure the well-being and protect the future of his fellow Space Ranger. During a mission, Buzz escapes in his ship and is displaced in time and space. As a matter of popular currency, these time-traveling metaverse stories are in. While this is not the most compelling of them all, it fits the zeitgeist. Buzz also gets a robotic space kitty called Sox and it’s so cute and it rules (notably it made the whole movie worthwhile for my five-year-old).
The film floats by and things happen on the screen but they don’t feel materially impactful. The way Pixar is usually able to craft magnificent play spaces for animations, feels like a lost art here. Realism in the character detail, with finely crafted models (and blessedly, some agreeable representation), seems to take precedence, and we watch these models do a lot of things, but rarely does it feel captivating. It is just another science fiction action movie now. There is no real irony there, as a disillusioned toy Space Ranger believes he’s actually the definitive article. Now Buzz Lightyear is represented as his actual self. And he says and does some of the same things his toy version says and does. It’s not funny anymore, because there is no contrast there. Just retconning how those things actually would have looked, and filling in the wondrous blanks the original franchise probed in our imaginations. If Toy Story films are pure works of childhood self-reflection and looking back at how we age, then what is Lightyear? A sad, strange little movie.