LIGHTYEAR (Movie Review)

LIGHTYEAR dishonestly bills itself as a Buzz origin story, instead choosing to reboot the mythos established in the Toy Story movies.

** out of ****
Rated PG
(for action / peril)
Released: June 17, 2022
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: Angus MacLane
Starring (the voices of): Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Uzo Aduba, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Mary McDonald-Lewis, Bill Hader, Efren Ramirez, Keira Hairston, James Brolin

Why is Disney so obsessed with subverting the canons of their biggest IPs?

Following their infamous (and still ongoing) divisive reign of stewarding Star Wars, the latest property for Disney to upend is Toy Story, the flagship franchise of Pixar animation studios. This time, however, the retconning appears to be an inside job by Pixar itself, utterly redefining nearly everything that’s ever been established about the mythos of Buzz Lightyear and Star Command.

Lightyear, the first Pixar movie to be released in theaters post-pandemic (its three previous offerings – Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022) – have all gone straight to Disney+ streaming), has an intriguing, meta premise. As the movie states upfront:

In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” 

In other words, Lightyear isn’t simply a Buzz Lightyear movie. It’s “the movie” that Andy saw in the mid-90s which inspired him to want the Buzz Lightyear action figure (as evidenced by the fact that Buzz is voiced here by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen).

The problem, however, is this: the adventures that Andy imagined while playing with Buzz as he battled his archenemy Zurg (not to mention the tie-in animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command that was consistent with that Toy Story lore) do not line up with the movie Lightyear. In fact, Lightyear diverts from and even alters the established mythos in significant, substantial ways. 

In short, there’s no logical way that this Lightyear could’ve been the movie that Andy saw in 1995.

And yet, even if Pixar had decided to not put Lightyear in that specific 1995 context, it’d still be a disappointment. This is not the Buzz Lightyear movie that Toy Story fans would expect or want, regardless of context.

What would seem like a logical Buzz Lightyear origin story (as this one is billed)? Pretty simple: Buzz leading other space rangers of Star Command against the evil Emperor Zurg, ruler of Planet Z and an intergalactic nemesis that seeks (with his robot army) to defeat the Galactic Alliance.

Well this is not that movie. Quite the contrary. It doesn’t even play like an origin story.

Lightyear is actually structured like a franchise reboot. Instead of establishing who Buzz is, how he came to be a Space Ranger, or what the Galactic Alliance, Star Command and Space Rangers are, it simply assumes you know all that.

Then, from that assumption, it tells a single time-travel story that’s stuck on one outlier planet. That story is used to reset (not establish) the world and friends that Buzz knows, swapping them out for an entirely new crew of characters many decades later, all while avoiding any depiction of Star Command itself. Again, not an origin story, but a classic franchise reboot structure.

But that’s not the worst of it. That honor goes to what they’ve concocted for the evil Emperor Zurg. I won’t divulge what that entails but, suffice it to say, it completely rewrites and recontextualizes what and who Zurg is to the Buzz Lightyear mythos – and it’s absolutely nothing like what multiple Toy Story movies and TV spinoffs have consistently established him to be.

It’s all done for the sake of subverting expectations, but that growing trend within serialized blockbuster properties is quickly growing thin, especially when (in a case like this) it needlessly and obnoxiously creates glaring, irreconcilable inconsistencies within a cinematic universe that’s been around for decades.

It’s also far less interesting and entertaining than simply sticking to canon and coming up with a rip-roaring space adventure within that canon.

Indeed, Lightyear is supposed to be the movie that establishes The Buzz Lightyear Canon. Instead, it deconstructs and reimagines it, but just because something is the last thing that audiences would expect doesn’t make it a good idea. Sometimes, it’s actually worse.

What we’re left with isn’t a particularly thrilling result, either. Sure, it’s diverting enough, as big screen spectacles go (especially in IMAX, where the jump to hyper speed is a literal blast), but the setting is small and isolated, and the action sequences are rather routine.

That’s nothing to say of the fact that somehow in Pixar’s version of 1995, Lightyear was a family-targeted movie that positively portrayed not just a same sex relationship but even a lesbian marriage and family. Regardless of how you feel about that, that’s simply not plausible for a major blockbuster from nearly 30 years ago. Of all the movies for Pixar to affirm its progressive values with, why choose one that would be so egregiously anachronistic?

Lightyear left me flabbergasted. It so blatantly ignores and / or defies the established essentials of Buzz Lightyear, Emperor Zurg and Star Command, that it actually plays like one big $200 million middle finger to Toy Story creator and disgraced Pixar founder John Lasseter.

Granted, that would take a grudge of legendary proportions to actually be true (fueled by spite so massive that it had reached fiscally irresponsible levels), but considering just how divergent Lightyear is from the Buzz mythos in the Toy Story movies, spite is the only motive that makes sense.

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