Toy Story franchise spinoff Lightyear debuts on Disney+ after a mediocre box office run and perfectly acceptable reviews, two things signaling flop status within a Pixar context. The creative/commercial/cultural pinnacle of animation studios now seems to be stuck in a quantity-over-quality rut, having released five films in three years, ranging from pretty good (Luca, Onward) to pretty damn good (Soul, Turning Red); its last classic was 2015’s Inside Out, a fairly lengthy seven-year stretch of mere pretty-goodness. With one possible exception: Toy Story 4, which brainboggled us mightily with the introduction of Forky, a character who exponentially ramped up the franchise’s signature existentialist ponderings. Which leads us to Lightyear, a narrative within a narrative, being the movie within the Toy Story universe that inspired the manufacture (birth?) of the toy who pals around with Woody and the gang. So does this movie live up to the deep, philosophical fodder of the films that preceded it? That’s why I’m here, to answer these (probably ridiculous) questions.
‘LIGHTYEAR’: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Again, this is a fictional universe within a fictional universe, but outside of an opening title card explaining as much, there is no reference whatsoever to the fictional universe with Woody and Forky in it. We open in UNCHARTED SPACE, where Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) of Star Command (should’ve been Space Force) is star-trekking his way to an alien planet. He narrates into his wrist thingamajig. He’s bold. Brave. Intrepid. So intrepid. I mean, his intrepidity is off the charts. Nothing flaps him. He fights off nasty monster vines and flying bug creatures like you or I might weed the flowerbox or swat a housefly. His problem-solving skills under pressure? Off the charts. With a computer voice counting down to his doom, he grease-pencils the math on his spaceship’s cockpit glass and comes up with a solution to a terrifying predicament and survives. Of course he survives. You can’t argue with math.
He’s also ethical. How ethical? When he doesn’t succeed at achieving the nigh-impossible – by a razor-thin margin, even – he court-martials himself. This is what happens when you have the Right Stuff, scads of it even, but not enough of the Right Stuff to meet your unrealistic standards. Overachievers: Do they drive you nuts too? His miniscule error renders himself and a large starship full of people marooned on a hostile planet without a functioning hyperdrive. This puts him in test-pilot mode, just like Earth’s greatest heroes, Neil Armstrong and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Buzz will use every resource at his disposal to fix the hyperdrive and get these fine folks unmarooned, and sacrifice his every waking moment, and every bit of his personality, and surely his sex life too, in order to do that.
So consider what he endures when he tests the new hyperdrive for the first time and learns that four years have passed planetside even though for him, the flight only lasted four minutes and change. Our psyches would be runny scrambled eggs, but we are not Buzz Lightyear. He forges ahead, testing and testing the thing over and over again in a montage, until his best friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba) has gotten older and had a child and a grandchild and died. But Buzz? Still not flapped, not really. He also realizes humanity has returned to its natural state: fascism! Also, some alien robots have been harassing everyone for the last week or so. This leaves him with a fresh string of challenges to overcome – although he soon learns he can’t do it alone like he always has. Good thing he has a robot cat named Sox (Peter Sohn) to help him, and to help Disney load up Wal Mart toy aisles. Buzz also has a small conglomeration of decidedly non-intrepid ragtag squad of comic-relief misfits backing him up: Alisha’s less-than-a-rookie granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), ex-con Darby (Dale Soules) and cowardly goofus Mo (Taika Waititi). Will their TEAMWORK save the day? NO SPOILERS!
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: You’d swear a couple of moments are snatched from Top Gun: Maverick. Otherwise, we’ve got some WALL-Eisms, a couple slivers of Starship Troopers, a 2001 reference, gobs of Star Trek and not nearly enough Toy Story magic.
Performance Worth Watching: Sox is R2-D2 if he was a cat, which makes him – what’s the word I’m looking for? Perfect? Yes. Perfect.
Memorable Dialogue: The ragtag squad powwows:
Buzz: Let’s review our objectives.
Darby: Kill the robots!
Mo: And don’t die.
Darby: “Don’t die” is just something you wanna do every day!
Mo: It’s still an objective.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: So Chris Evans plays a courageous patriot hero ripped from his own time and deposited into the future? (Where have I heard that one before?) So Lightyear, being a Pixar product, and fodder from the Toy Story universe, surely is a deep examination of culture shock, psychological displacement and the theoretical trauma one might experience from time travel, right? Eh. Not really. So the debate here is whether we should be refreshed or disappointed by its lack of subtext. I therefore pose two questions: Anyone else tired of crying during Pixar movies? And is it OK if Pixar offers perfectly acceptable popcorn entertainment instead of emo headtrips?
Yes, and yes, I’d assert. But Incredibles 2 did this type of thing far better, with its assemblage of grippingly memorable action setpieces far outpacing Lightyear’s modest diversions, which offer more than its share of instances of stretching for something just out of reach, always with the stretching for something just out of reach. The robot cat is obviously contrived to manipulate us, and although we fully enjoy the manipulation – Sox is a charmer; resistance is futile – his potential for being a psychotherapeutic support animal for Buzz goes unexplored. And the film looks terrific, par for Pixar’s expert visual course. Otherwise, a teased-out reveal of the villain Zurg, blah supporting characters and the time-travel plot all leave us if not under- or overwhelmed, then sufficiently whelmed. And a lesson about the value of teamwork over hardheaded individualism is vaguely dissatisfying. It’s not as if the movie’s reach falls shorter than its grasp; it just doesn’t seem to be grasping for much.
Our Call: STREAM IT, but don’t be surprised if you never feel the compulsion to go back to it. Lightyear is fine, just fine. It inspires no greater superlatives.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.