In 2020, Chris Evans took to Twitter to “clarify” something about his new project for a deeply confused public. Pixar’s upcoming Toy Story offshoot, Lightyear, is not about Buzz Lightyear, he explained— at least, not the Buzz Lightyear voiced by Tim Allen. “This,” he wrote, “is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.”
Sadly for all of us, Lightyear’s opening title cards explain the film’s premise another way: “In 1995, Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”
In 17 words, the film zaps itself in the space boot. On what planet would a movie from 1995 have this animation?
As pedantic as it might seem to knock Lightyear for its contemporary visuals, the tension between its nostalgic introduction and the modern animation sounds the alarm on a broader malfunction: This movie makes absolutely no goddamn sense.
In another universe where Pixar was not trying to break our brains, Lightyear might’ve looked like the original Toy Story that actually came out in 1995. Hell, Pixar could have taken us on a mission to uncharted space and borrowed some resources from its corporate overlord, Disney, to make this movie a real throwback to 2D animation. (The studio that allegedly killed hand-drawn graphics bringing back 2D? Now that, to borrow a quote from another space-set franchise, would be boldly going where no one’s gone before!)
What’s most galling about Lightyear is that it’s not really a bad movie—it’s a predictably conceived, utterly pointless one that will none the less probably bring in $1 billion at the worldwide box office, as did the last two Toy Story films.
We first meet Buzz Lightyear on an excursion with his longtime commander and best friend, Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), that ends with him botching their mission royally and marooning their crew on a foreign planet. After a brief period of theatrical self-flagellation (apparently one of Muppet Baby Buzz’s favorite hobbies), our intrepid hero decides he will stop at nothing to rectify his mistake and get the mission back on track—even if it means spending years running test flights in space, where time moves more slowly, while his friends grow old and die on the ground. And when he receives orders to get over his mistake and accept that this strange planet is now home? Buzz steals a ship (from what we can only assume is an under-resourced colony) for yet another test run with a new fuel source.
Around this time, you might be asking yourself: Who would buy this character’s action figure? Reader, your guess is as good as mine.
But, wait—our astronautical hero’s journey is just beginning! Enter Commander Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), whose ragtag gaggle of misfit grunts envy the training rookies bring to the table. There’s Darby Steel (Dale Soules), who technically isn’t allowed to handle firearms due to her parole, and Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), who doesn’t necessarily understand what’s so bad about surrendering in times of crisis if it means not dying.
Also along for the ride is Sox, a robotic therapy cat Commander Hawthorne issued to Buzz before her death. Voiced by Pixar stalwart Peter Sohn, Sox feels bound for the studio’s pantheon of diabolically adorable animal sidekicks.
Evans makes a solid leap from Captain America to Lightyear, even if he doesn’t leave much of a mark on the role. Aduba, though underused, brings the emotional gravitas required to set up themes that eventually give the film some heart. And Palmer’s instantly recognizable voice radiates with scrappy energy and optimism—the perfect foil for Evans’ surprisingly dour Lightyear.
Emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear’s famed nemesis, also makes an appearance, but he’s not the real villain of this story. (Another Marvel connection: Zurg’s voiced by James Brolin, father to none other than Josh Brolin—who plays another purple menace, Thanos.) With the help of Izzy and her improbable crew (plus Sox) Buzz is finally able to face his real enemy: the savior complex that’s made accepting his old mistake feel impossible for so many years.
Far be it from me to deny a hero their flaws and nuanced journeys. But I have to ask: If this is the movie Andy and so many kids in Toy Story’s America obsessed over, where were the Izzy dolls in that world? The Commander Hawthorne dolls? If we’re to believe that Andy and his classmates were out buying toys based solely on the content of this movie, surely their heroism would at least resonate equally with Buzz. And where in Toy Story, I ask you, were the Sox toys that would have become inescapable alongside the space ranger?
In some ways, Lightyear even undermines Buzz’s own arc in Toy Story. Throughout that film, we observe an action figure coming to grips with the fact that he’ll never be the real-life, flesh-and-blood hero he believed himself to be. One of the film’s most emotional beats finds the plastic figurine hurling himself off the staircase and falling to the ground in a failed attempt to fly. Apparently, the plastic version of this character didn’t come equipped with his own backstory; if he did, he’d know he learned this lesson about hubris already.
As timely as an Emo Buzz Lightyear might be in the age of Robert Pattinson’s raccoon-eyed Batman, Lightyear ultimately crashes into the paradox of its own premise. By trying to comment on this hero’s legacy in the same film that’s meant to establish his legend, Buzz’s purported “origin story” short-circuits itself.
One might argue that the real value in Lightyear is not what it represents for Toy Story, but what it could mean for both Pixar and animation more broadly. As promised, the film does display Aduba’s character in a significant romantic relationship with a woman; we see them kiss, and in a small flashback we see Aduba pregnant with their first child.
As Variety reported earlier this year, studio-backed animated features still largely ascribe to the “show, if anything, but never tell” school of thought when it comes to incorporating LGBTQ+ characters. Within that context, one could argue that Lightyear constitutes an unequivocal win. To do so, however, would require forgetting that Disney only re-incorporated the gay kiss after employees released a stunning statement calling the company out for its silence on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
Former Pixar employees told Variety that for years, creatives have struggled to incorporate queer representation into their work “only to have those efforts consistently thwarted.” Allegedly stymied efforts include gestures as comically small as incorporating a sticker on a shop window in the background of a scene—a detail that was reportedly vetoed from a Pixar film for being “distracting.”
There’s also something disappointing about seeing this sudden commitment to diversity and queer representation arrive not in the first, second, third, or even fourth installment in this franchise, but the fifth—a spinoff at that. From this armchair, at least, the sudden interest (and, apparently, the choice to waffle on that representation until employees called it out) is giving “half-hearted mea culpa” at best.
If Chris Evans has his way, there will be more Lightyears to come—although he claimed during a recent interview that it’s not yet clear if Pixar would be interested. (Maybe check back with them after Lightyear makes its inevitable billion.)
As Evans told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If there are talks, it’s nothing that I’ve heard yet. But Pixar is incredibly precious with their intellectual properties.”
“They’re not like other studios who just try and go for the cash grab,” said the star of a movie about the “human” inspiration for a fictional action figure that’s already appeared in four other installments. “Only if there’s a story to tell and if there’s something worth diving into. So if there is another story, I’m sure it will be something just as special and meaningful as this one.”
Indeed—we can only await (with bated breath) for a Lightyear sequel as deep and spiritually moving as Cars 3.
Then again, a theoretical Lightyear sequel could do worse than the unhinged madness that fuels the incessant procession of Cars. That, at least, might be more fun than the one we have now—a paint-by-numbers project that largely slides from the mind like a slab of space meat from a paper tray. Or maybe now—after four Toy Story films, a theme park ride, and a specially branded section of Hollywood Studios—it’s time for Pixar to accept that we’ve all played with these sentient toys (and their “human” counterparts) long enough.