"In 1997, a child named Andy bought a Buzz Lightyear action figure after seeing the character in his favorite movie. This is that movie." These sentences precede Lightyear, a gorgeously realized and superbly animated film which has also been finely calculated and sterilized to assuage those who greenlit its production. Despite its visual splendor, Lightyear is not always easy to look at, with the knowledge that a soulless, artless, superficial corporate entity has hollowed out the insides, and is wearing the film like a glossy, finely crafted skinsuit.
The film follows Buzz Lightyear as he attempts to bring home a crew aboard "The Turnip" an exploratory vessel used by Star Command. His attempts bring about strange consequences with time, and he is quickly thrust into an unfamiliar timeline with a trio of unlikely helpers, including the teenaged granddaughter of his compatriot, Izzy Hawthorne. Together, they must stop a robot invasion and complete the mission Buzz began almost a century ago.
There are a number of threads and disparate qualities to Lightyear, many of wildly varying quality, but one thing is certain; this is a proudly corporate and sterilized product. This nagging fact presents itself with the aforementioned opening lines, a reminder that the film currently being watched is explicitly and purposefully nothing more than a product consumed by a child twenty-five years ago. The message is stated not only to help Disney merchandise the film, but to remind and entice their audience about the wonderful array of products present under their corporate umbrella, their distressingly tightening grip on all entertainment. The sentiment registers early and often; this is not story, this is product.
This corporate slavishness manifests itself in the typical risk-aversion attitude and spinelessness of contemporary Hollywood. Lightyear is bland; not visually, but in its story, in most of its directorial choices, and its tone. It's a painstakingly manufactured blandness, meticulously constructed to smooth over or erase the rough edges of human complication. The nature of the story and the moodiness of the animation call for a mature telling, but the writers and producers of the film clearly aren't interested in mining any potential emotional complexity or intrigue.
Another irritating and telling sign of Lightyear's men-in-suits meddling is its frantic pace and fear of looking death in the eye. Buzz's story here is actually quite tragic, a futuristic vision of uncontrolled loss and temporal grief akin to Interstellar or Ad Astra. A film more attuned with its characters and their psychological needs and nightmares would nurture this tragedy, use it to frame their journey early and often. Lightyear not only blows by this thread in the pursuit of lubricating its plot, but its final twist runs totally counter to Buzz's previous motivations and desires. Buzz is not allowed to feel true human-like grief because he's not human. He's merchandise. The same could be said for all other characters.
A counterargument arises: "It's just a kid's film!" But if there's any animation studio which has shown the propensity for mature children's programming in the past, it's Pixar Animation. Even goofier franchises, like Kung Fu Panda, have occasionally hit emotional paydirt because the writers were aligned with their characters, psychologically and plot-wise. When Po learns of his parents' death at the hands of Lord Shen, he mourns, and the film mourns with him. He's allowed time to focus within and process the information. He doesn't immediately stumble onto a new plot point, he doesn't mindlessly enter into a final confrontation, he doesn't make any insipid quips. Buzz Lightyear, when presented with emotionally charged material, does all three...though not in that order.
The writing is simply too cartoonish for the material presented, in terms of both visual awe and narrative substance. No character is fleshed out beyond a few superficial quirks. The trio which accompanies Buzz succeeds too often in spite of themselves, careening jollily from one set piece to the next with no recognition of the stakes or danger within the film.
All four characters are at least twenty-two years of age, but consistently behave like children, hooting and hollering in the face of clear and present danger. Just quip, quip, quip, quip, quip. No setups, no punchlines, few personality-driven situations; just quip, quip, quip, as if the film were ghostwritten by a prepubescent James Gunn. Again, this approach usually works in lighter, lower-staked children's material, but Lightyear promises to be something more early on. The immediacy and frequency with which the film reneges on that promise is incredibly frustrating.
There is a final problem with Lightyear which is difficult to describe without spoiling. Buzz makes an all-cinema selfish decision at the film's climax, which is inexplicably framed as heroic and unquestionably morally correct. The decision is framed as such in no small part because of Disney's creative bankruptcy. It's a sad reality that the company most noted for typifying villainous roles and creating memorable, distinct, and creative threats has succumbed to believing that no one individual is ever a true villain. Everyone is simply misunderstood or morally gray. It's a shame. Another small but relevant note is the film's general lack of structure or causality. The whole endeavor feels generally purposeless, and the film struggles to sustain itself.
As mentioned, for all of the film's narrative and emotional problems, there is an incredible team using unbelievable technology at work. The animators of Lightyear have created a stunning, immersive, and moody alien environment. It's staggering to look back at the original Toy Story and realize just how far the medium has come. Extensive and frequent credit must be given to the artists at work, who are undoubtably the best of their craft. Many of the sequences feel like hyper-stylized renderings of recent sci-fi extravaganzas, like the aforementioned Ad Astra or Interstellar, with just a sprinkling of 2001: A Space Odyssey for good measure. Some of the film's images are truly breathtaking.
All in all, Lightyear is a typically disappointing and spiritless stab to create new life from old IP. There are many problems with the film's writing, but the central issue is Lightyear's eponymous caricature. The audience is told Andy wanted a Buzz toy after seeing this movie; even beyond the transparent cynicism of such a statement, it's hard to even believe at face value. This film's Buzz Lightyear is a mostly incompetent, insecure, rash, and boneheaded figure. Younger viewers will probably enjoy the space-age antics, but most out of grade school will feel the familiar tinge of disappointment. What could've been!