'Lightyear' Is a Safe Return to Pixar's Retro Era
To infinity, and no further than that.
Pixar, the computer animation studio owned by Disney that revolutionized the way studios make movies for children, has gotten meta. They've always been meta; even their earliest story concepts—a bunch of sentient toys compete for the attentions of a young boy, closet monsters work in a factory that harvests human screams, superheroes have been outlawed and relocated to the suburbs on government benefits—have a flair of the metatextual about them, taking simple ideas and expanding them into whole worlds.
Nowadays, though, with movies anthropomorphizing the bodiless concepts of emotions, souls, and, in an upcoming installment, classical elements, the studio weirdly seems like it's running out of ideas (with Domee Shi's utterly fantastic Turning Red being the exception). Maybe everyone's just been in a more meditative, philosophical mood lately. Pixar's newest film, the retro space opera Lightyear, feels like a return to telling the kind of story that made the studio great in the first place. In a way, it is, but it could have been so much more.
Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is a Star Command officer, a member of an elite force of astronaut adventurers who protect people from extraterrestrial threats. When his colony ship crash-lands on a hostile planet, he and his fellow officers discover that the crystals they use for fuel to travel at warp speed have been corrupted. Buzz, feeling responsible for the ship's misfortune, takes it upon himself to recreate the crystal that the ship's engine needs. During his following test flights, his ship moves so fast that time slows down for him, and what takes mere minutes from his perspective lasts for years on the surface of the planet: Everyone around him gets older and lives entire lives, while he stays the same, obsessed with finishing his mission. When he returns from his final flight, though, something terrible has happened, and for the sake of not ruining a fun surprise, I'll stop there.
If you're reading this, you likely don't need me to explain who Buzz Lightyear is, but for the sake of being thorough I'll do it anyway. Buzz, then voiced by Tim Allen, first appeared in Pixar's flagship feature Toy Story, frenemy of cowboy doll Woody and beloved toy of Andy, dressed in a plastic astronaut suit with little glider wings and a clear bubble helmet. He's a character as iconic to Disney's mythos as the Little Mermaid or Dory or Jafar, and now that Pixar is thinking especially meta these days, it makes sense that they would finally make a movie, as Evans himself so succinctly put it, about "the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on."
The movie opens with a few lines explaining exactly this, just in case there's any lingering confusion: Andy had a toy. The toy was from a movie. This is the movie.
Lightyear is somewhat styled after the science fiction films of the '70s and '80s, but if you're expecting a pulpy space opera akin to Star Wars or The Last Starfighter or Flash Gordon, this is not that. It's much more of a traditional Pixar movie (because it is one), and doesn't even quite reach those heights, grounded as it is in a pretty predictable pattern—character used to being good at everything must learn to work with a team—and, literally, on the surface of a desperately boring planet. This is Star Command! What do you mean they're stuck in the same place for 90 minutes? It helps that, every time these thoughts start to worm their way into your brain, the movie's requisite Cute Target Toy, a robotic cat named Sox (Peter Sohn), pops in to manipulate your emotions with how adorable it is.
There aren't many surprises here, but the middle bit is especially effective, wherein Buzz is basically watching the lives of everyone he loves happen without him—there's nothing Pixar does better than a really great montage. This is also where the same-sex elements come in, which Pixar refused to remove after complaints from the usual suspects (because of this, the film won't be shown in 14 countries). Buzz's best friend and fellow Star Command officer Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) is gay, and her romance with her girlfriend and eventual wife plays out in a few scenes of almost no dialogue. It's a beautiful few scenes, illustrating the lives of these minor characters against Buzz's sense of separation and inescapable duty, a mood reminiscent of a particularly sad Ray Bradbury short story. It's also unfortunate that these movies continue to sideline their underrepresented characters to minor roles, though it's become abundantly clear that the people doing the actual making of these movies have to fight hard to get even these passing mentions from being unceremoniously cut by overly concerned executives.
There's plenty in Lightyear to enjoy, and it's one of Pixar's better efforts over the last 10 years, but it ultimately feels half-done. It feels like it ought to be the beginning of something, like its narrative is a prologue stretched into a feature awaiting the much more interesting second and third and fifth installments down the road (there are currently no plans to make more Lightyears). If Pixar wants to make a cheesy, retro space opera from the weirdo age of sci-fi cinema, then they should just make one, no thorny meta-analysis required.