There’s an understanding between Pixar fans and the Cars franchise that, while none of the movies would ever be classified as some of the studio’s best, the franchise continues to chug along because of just how much money it makes. To put it in perspective, when the second movie was released 11 years ago, through merchandising alone, the Cars series made $8 billion. That’s an obscene amount of money for what was, at the time, a two-film series. I don’t begrudge Pixar for making Cars: it has to keep the lights on somehow, but it doesn’t try to make the film into artistic statements. And that’s okay. Cars knows its lane and stays in it.
Anyone could tell from a mile away that Lightyear was cut from the same cloth. It’s a movie that purely exists to make money. The Toy Story series is basically done, so the only way to make money off of it is to start making spin-offs. Again, I don’t begrudge Pixar for making a movie like Lightyear, given that its last three films didn’t have theatrical releases and the studio almost certainly needed a morale boost, but that doesn’t mean the movie is good. It doesn’t do anything bad, but it doesn’t do anything all that remarkable either.
Director: Angus MacLane
Release Date: June 17, 2022 (Theatrical)
Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is a Galactic Ranger of Star Command who accidentally crashes his ship on a hostile enemy planet. The only problem is that Buzz’s ship is an explorer vessel that contains thousands of humans, so they’re stranded until they can create a new warp crystal to power the ship. Through countless experiments, Buzz continues to fail and faces the crisis of failing his mission and beats himself up over his big mistake. To make matters worse, Buzz also has to contend with a massive star cruiser commanded by the robot overlord Zurg (James Brolin) and is stranded from the base with only three new recruits to assist him in stopping Zurg from whatever it is he’s planning.
I’ll say this about Lightyear right off the bat: there’s a twist in the central premise that I found to be incredibly well executed. Writing that brief synopsis was difficult because I tried to phrase it in such a way that doesn’t give away the twist since it’s one that you really should experience in the theater. It colors the rest of the movie and Buzz’s mission in an interesting light, one that helps to elevate it from being a standard sci-fi action movie. Plus there’s a framing device at the beginning of the movie that I thought was pretty cute.
Outside of that unique premise, I find it hard to really think about anything Lightyear did that stood out in any way. Most Pixar movies will have something that will allow audiences to gravitate toward them. The only thing that Lightyear really has going for it is that it’s Pixar’s first sci-fi movie (kind of). The space vistas are pretty to look at, but even from a visual standpoint, there’s nothing about the movie to elevate it into something memorable.
Most of the action beats, when they do crop up, don’t have the punch that you would expect from a movie like this. I wasn’t expecting action of the scale of The Incredibles, but all of the sequences feel so lifeless and deflated. Slicing giant insects and shooting blasters should have a degree of impact, but here the enemies Buzz and his crew fight against feel like they have the consistency of paper-mache.
The emotional beats are better, but it gets into some weird metatextual territory that I don’t really know how to respond to. Like, the big joke from the first Toy Story movie is that Buzz doesn’t know that he’s really a toy. He believes he’s actually a Space Ranger saving the universe and the joke is him not realizing that or being the straight man to everyone’s more accepting and lackadaisical personality. But here, Buzz is very serious. This is the straight version of the character, who he’s meant to be. It’s weird to take himself so seriously when the entire point of his character in the main movies is to be this unaware toy who’s not aware of the punchline of his existence. I know that’s a me thing, but it’s something I was never really able to overcome.
Yes, Buzz is the straight man in the movie and the dramatic elements work surrounding him, but he’s also saddled with a lot of comic relief. There are four separate characters who tag along with him that can be considered comic relief. One of them, Izzy (Keke Palmer), does have somewhat of an arc as she goes on, but most of her screentime is spent being a klutz and trying to help but only getting in Buzz’s way. Buzz’s arc is centered on him becoming more of a team player instead of being a one-man show, but it’s hard to really sell that message when the people he’s saddled with are literally dead weight. They’re not offensively bad, at least. I mean, Taika Waititi’s character is incredibly annoying, but everyone else doesn’t really harm the movie.
If you’ve seen any sci-fi epic before, once the movie settles into the Zurg conflict, you can see the plot points coming a mile away. They’re so predictable I would be surprised if someone didn’t see specific character beats coming. Buzz accepts help from others. Izzy overcomes her astrophobia to help Buzz. The only twist that I would say kind of surprised me was related to Zurg, but that opened up a can of worms that created a whole host of issues that I’m fairly certain the writers didn’t really plan out. Just don’t worry about the implications of the climax, turn your brain off, and take it easy.
Strange as it is to say, there are no real genuine faults with the movies besides Waititi’s annoyance. I can look at a lot of Pixar movies that have faults in them, but there’s nothing really wrong with Lightyear. It’s just unambitious. That’s the thing that kills me about this movie. It’s so by the numbers that it hurts, and calling Pixar by the numbers is strange. Yes, Pixar does have its standard tropes they use, but I’m not saying that Lightyear is by the numbers by Pixar standards. No, it’s just generic in a general sense.
What struck me most about the film wasn’t something that was inside of it, but something that wasn’t in it. There was no short. Don’t be mistaken, I’m not going to give Lightyear a lower score for not having one, but it crystallized that this Pixar is a much different beast than the one from even a few years ago. Like I said at the top, it only further cemented that this film exists to make money. It doesn’t need to be ambitious or tell a particularly engaging story. It just needs to have the iconography and characters required to make money. It functions and plays it safe to protect the brand so Pixar can keep the lights on for its more ambitious movies.
In that regard, I can’t hate Lightyear. It isn’t awful. Pixar is still a master of technological artistry and has created a world that looks great, but there’s no soul here. It’s Buzz Lightyear on a standard space adventure and saving the day. The comedy and fight scenes will keep kids engaged, but Pixar is more than just delivering general engagement. Pixar makes kids, and adults, think and emotionally connect to its characters in a way few movies can. That’s not here. There are basic thrills and nothing more. It’s adequate. It’s conventional. It’s average. It’s everything that Pixar isn’t.
Lightyear is the kind of fodder that would be best for a VOD movie. It’s the kind of unambitious film that would work great as a direct-to-video film. Low stakes, conventional in virtually every way, but efficient. Movies like Turning Red, Soul, and even Luca have more to say and more passion behind them than Lightyear. A family can enjoy Lightyear without any problems. If you just want simple entertainment, this will deliver. If you want to find an animated movie that has something to say, take any of the other Pixar movies released in the past two years over this.