Review: ‘Lightyear’ is Pixar’s weakest ‘Toy Story’ movie
Just before the studio logos, Lightyear tells us we’re seeing Andy of Toy Story’s favorite movie, begging an unsettling question: does Disney exist in the Toy Story universe? Does Andy grow up to realize that his childhood was consumer data for a tyrannical corporate monopoly? No wonder he left his toys behind—they’re totems of uncaring industry, secretly alive but never ensouled. If Buzz knew his true origins, he would’ve followed Forky into the trash.
To be fair, Toy Story has been about selling toys from the start, and the franchise has still produced four great movies. The original was a passion project for Pixar, no matter how intensely their distributor-turned-owner leaned into toy sales—and lean Disney did, spending five times more on promotion than on production. A few billion Buzz toys later and he’s back with his own spinoff. Pixar has seen somewhat of a creative resurgence after a substandard run in the ‘10s, but they’ve also been publicly feuding with Disney over creative control, so it’s hard to discern the climate around Lightyear’s production.
READ ALSO: Review: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is worth celebrating
What goes on behind the scenes is merely guesswork, though; all we know for certain is what’s up on the screen: Buzz Lightyear wants to go home. After he crashes a Star Command vessel on a dangerous planet, the crew is forced to settle there while conducting the requisite repairs. A year passes as Buzz’s guilt gnaws at him. When it’s finally time to test hyperspace flight, Buzz volunteers, only for the mission to fail and Buzz to return four years later—even though he only spent minutes in space. Trying again means who knows how many years away, but Buzz is determined to right his wrong.
Like Pixar’s best work, Lightyear serves a greater theme that will edify children and resonate with adults, but the film lacks corresponding character depth. Guilt and determination are Buzz’s primary drives, but determination, for one, is his factory setting—a static trait with no interesting development. Buzz resembles his character in early Toy Story drafts before the famous six-month rewrite that saved the movie’s script: a boring, stable do-gooder. Chris Evans’ vanilla vocal performance doesn’t help. Where Buzz’s guilt is concerned, a strong, early scene sells it with lonely framing, somber colors, and the fine-tailored details of animated body language, but the rest of the film is content to talk around it like a rookie therapist.
Without character depth to nestle into, Lightyear’s themes crystallize in canned messages. A pivotal scene for Buzz and co. employs a dependable screenwriting strategy—allegorizing emotional conflict into a physical roadblock—but the characters explain the metaphor so overtly that they render it redundant. Between the exposition and the embarrassingly simple solution to the problem at hand, the scene plays like a video game tutorial: not sure if the square peg fits in the square hole? Press A to hear the subtext again.
Very little provokes or allures—not the side characters of acceptably varying sizes and snark nor Disney’s tenth failed attempt at including a queer character who won’t inspire homophobes to cancel their park passes. The most progressive thing about the movie is its cat representation (extra points there, though—dogs have had it too good for too long). So what if the cat is a toy sales ploy with plot armor? Pixar sees the comedic value of a nearly expressionless face, and that alone earned more laughs than a thousand jokey Disneyisms.
More refined than the script is the animation, which approaches photorealism in its landscapes and reflections. The film’s retro sci-fi look, superficial it may be, recalls eager visions of a bygone future. It’s a familiar and charming enough aesthetic to excuse the indistinct animation style (the only striking character design is a reused one). Fledgling director Angus MacLane honors his influences openly and translates their ambiance to a new medium intact. It’s not awe-inspiring, but it’s sure nostalgic.
When Lightyear’s reveals are out of the way and its plot takes full shape, its message rings a little less hollow—if no less abstract—by virtue of complexifying the protagonist in a roundabout way. The film ends much stronger than it begins, and it’s nice to see the toys still serving a theme all these years later. But in the realm of toy-based storytelling, this is easily Pixar’s weakest. Shame on Andy’s taste.