Lightyear is an anti–space opera for an anti-heroic age

The latest from Pixar isn’t without emotional appeal, and even an element of pro-life feeling…but if this is Andy’s Star Wars, Andy had an impoverished childhood.

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

An opening title positions Pixar’s Lightyear as a movie, not within a movie, but within a movie world: the world of the Toy Story movies. The conceit is that we’re watching young Andy’s “favorite movie” from 1995: the movie behind the Buzz Lightyear merch. First-time feature director Angus MacLane calls Lightyear “Andy’s Star Wars.” He also calls it “Pixar’s first sci-fi action adventure movie,” which takes some nerve coming from a dude whose first credit is the Wall-E spin-off short Burn-E.

It pains me to say this: If Lightyear is Andy’s Star Wars, what an impoverished childhood Andy had. In our world, children in 1995 had two certified childhood masterpieces, Toy Story and Babe, not to mention Pocahontas, The Indian in the Cupboard, and the Jason Scott Lee Jungle Book, among others. And Andy, whose young imagination was fired with melodramatic sci-fi/Western-style standoffs between noble heroes and dastardly villains — what did he get?

I know what he should have gotten. A word-balloon blurb on Buzz’s spaceship box in Toy Story breathlessly declares that, as “a member of the elite Universe Protection Unit of the Space Ranger Corps, I protect the galaxy from the threat of invasion from the Evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance.” Toy Story featured a Buzz Lightyear TV commercial with copy like “Buzz Lightyear, planet Earth needs your help!” and “Buzz Lightyear: the world’s greatest superhero, now the world’s greatest toy!” We also saw a Buzz Lightyear video game in Toy Story 2 depicting Buzz blowing up armies of robots and dodging deathtraps to confront Zurg in his lair.

There’s something to be said for embracing the value of an ordinary life that might not be the life one expected or planned for.

There are glimpses of the movie Lightyear should have been. Alas, this movie’s Buzz (voiced by Chris “Captain America” Evans, replacing Tim Allen because reasons) is never called upon to help planet Earth or to protect the galaxy, let alone the universe. There may be a Galactic Alliance, but we never see it, or anyone else except one ship of explorers and their descendants. There’s an antagonist named Zurg (Josh Brolin), but he’s neither the sworn enemy nor the emperor of anything — he’s more misguided than malevolent — and neither he nor anyone else threatens to invade anything. There’s no galactic struggle of heroes versus villains. No all-important mission on which the fate of Earth or the Galactic Alliance depends. Lightyear evokes the world of space opera only to debunk it; it’s an anti–space opera for an era in which heroism is viewed with skepticism at best.

Lightyear opens in uncharted regions of space, with Buzz and Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), a fellow Space Ranger, helming a vessel Buzz calls the Turnip, an exploration ship containing a thousand scientists and engineers in hypersleep. The first thing that happens — in a certain sense, the only thing that happens for most of the movie, at least in on a big-picture scale — is that Buzz makes a fateful mistake and sets down the Turnip on a treacherous planet that somehow has a name, T’Kani Prime, from which it turns out there is no easy escape. After that establishing crisis, the action largely consists of generally unsuccessful video-game efforts to level up: to do or to get whatever will enable our heroes and the now-awakened crew to return to Earth, or at least to overcome specific threats to the colony that grows up around the Turnip over the decades. That’s right: This is a movie about a thousand humans marooned on an uncharted planet for decades, and Buzz’s unsuccessful efforts to get them back underway to Earth.

Buzz’s efforts depend on the ship’s pointy heads successfully recreating a hyperspeed fuel crystal from the rich resources on T’Kani Prime. Is there any chance of sending a message back to Earth? How about a distress beacon? Will there be any Space Ranger search-and-rescue missions looking for a thousand humans, including some of their own, lost in uncharted space? At least some unmanned probes? Moving on! Somehow the pointy heads fail for decades to get the exact balance of ingredients necessary for hyperspeed fuel crystals — something you would think would be standard knowledge among pointy heads, especially on an exploration mission in uncharted space. Of course, they are pretty busy with the business of developing the colony, despite the neighborhood being hostile enough that the colony is eventually defended by a laser-shield perimeter.

Where does the time go? For Buzz, the years are literally lost to the relativistic time-dilation effects of brief test flights at near lightspeed. Specifically, each time he tests a new hyperspeed fuel crystal — a space flight lasting only four minutes — four years pass on T’Kani Prime. (Such extreme time dilation means Buzz is traveling much faster than 99.999% lightspeed, but it’s not fast enough.) While Buzz’s test flights fail again and again and again, Commander Hawthorne falls in love with another woman (“Who is she?” Buzz asks on hearing that Hawthorne is engaged). This is by far Disney/Pixar animation’s most explicit treatment so far of gay animated characters: an unambiguous Black lesbian couple who share a kiss and raise a son. (Strikingly, this comes a week after Jurassic World Dominion’s coy treatment of DeWanda Wise’s allegedly bisexual character.) Clearly 1995 was a very different time in Andy’s world than in ours.

For the most part, though, what’s meant to be a pioneering adventure in uncharted space feels awfully shopworn, from the mechanical video-game plotting (Do the thing! Get the thing! Sorry, you failed again!) to the rote emotional beats.

Before long — from his point of view — Buzz finds himself teaming up with Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), among others, to take on a mysterious threat to the colony. Buzz’s real challenges, though, are internal and attitudinal, from his Lego Batman­–style self-reliance and his distrust of rookies and autopilots to the gnawing guilt he feels for marooning the Turnip on T’Kani Prime and ending Commander Hawthorne’s career as a Space Ranger.

The first theme feels like yet another commentary on Pixar’s old guard turning over the reins to a younger generation of collaborators. (Unsurprisingly, Izzy feels the pressure of living up to her grandmother’s legend and worries that she isn’t good enough.) The second theme packs a bit more heft. Granted that more energy and thought could have been put into bringing the crew of the Turnip home, there’s something to be said for embracing the value of an ordinary life that might not be the life one expected or planned for. Even if Buzz could go back to the beginning and undo his mistake landing on T’Kani Prime, this would mean erasing Izzy and her father, for starters — an objection not without an element of incipiently pro-life feeling. (A similar difficulty weighed on Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame: He wanted to bring back everyone Thanos wiped out, but without resetting the timeline and erasing his young daughter’s existence, among the many others born in the interim.)

Lightyear has other bright spots. Sox (Peter Sohn), a robotic cat initially assigned to Buzz for emotional support, turns out to be more valuable than he seems, both strategically and narratively. Sox gets one of the movie’s biggest laughs — twice — and Izzy’s team members (Taika Waititi and Dale Soules) are good for a few laughs as well. For the most part, though, what’s meant to be a pioneering adventure in uncharted space feels awfully shopworn, from the mechanical video-game plotting (Do the thing! Get the thing! Sorry, you failed again!) to the rote emotional beats. There’s nothing here like the nostalgic affection for genre conventions in Toy Story 2’s thrilling quasi-Western finale, or the wonder and awe in Wall-E at the arrival of Eve or the terrifying blastoff into outer space.

There are kids today ready to discover their generation’s Star Wars, their Toy Story. They’ll have to keep waiting.

Animation, Debilitating Sequelitis, Family, Pixar, Science Fiction, Toy Story