Pixar, the studio that has produced so many animated classics, has managed to do the unimaginable. Somehow, they’ve taken one of their best known and beloved characters, Buzz Lightyear, and put him into a boring, generic science-fiction adventure. On top of that, Buzz is no longer the officious-yet-funny blowhard. Instead, he’s a person with no sense of humor and several troubling psychological tendencies. In Lightyear, Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger whose dislike of computers is matched only by his avoidance of help from others. (Why? Who knows.) His single-mindedness nearly gets himself and everyone else killed, and from that point on, he’s fixated on undoing his mistake. Buzz proceeds to spend years testing a new fuel cell that could get everyone back home, to the exclusion of all else. Every test only lasts minutes for him, but years elapse for everyone else. Best with failure after failure, he loses his only friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba) to old age. (Yes, this is a children’s cartoon.)
Fortunately, his new companion, a computerized cat robot named SOX (Peter Sohn), helps him solve a problem with the fuel cell. But first, Buzz must deal with Zurg and his robot henchmen. Why is Zurg attacking the colony? Why is Zurg hell-bent on capturing Buzz? The answers may surprise you, especially if you’ve seen The Lego Movie: The Second Part. Everything about Lightyear is surprisingly lazy. With the exception of SOX, the jokes fall flat. The science-fiction aspect is a timid riff on Interstellar. The graphics are shockingly dull for a company that made Wall-E. The morals of the story, about moving on from failure and accepting the help of others, have none of the emotional resonance of prior Pixar movies. There may never have been a good reason to make Lightyear, but that’s no excuse for the result being this shallow and listless. If cribbing from a Warner Brothers animated feature isn’t the equivalent of Pixar hitting rock bottom, I don’t know what is. Pixar won Best Animated Feature not even two years ago for Soul. How can this be the same studio? Not recommended. (Not even on Disney+)
Lightyear is one of those rare oddities: a genuine clunker from Pixar. There have been others, namely The Good Dinosaur and Cars 2. Those movies, as flawed as they are, still have their moments. To be fair, Lightyear isn’t without its charms, skimpy as they are. What surprised me was how Pixar could take one of its beloved characters, Buzz Lightyear, and use it as the basis for such a dull, uninteresting adventure. Buzz is a character that Pixar created and who has been an integral part of four widely popular films. They know him inside and out. Creating a movie that focuses on him should have been the equivalent of a layup, or running the ball into the endzone from the goal line. Somehow, Pixar managed to commit a turnover, fumble the ball, insert your favorite sports metaphor for head-scratching failure here.
Part of the problem is that the conceit behind the movie doesn’t work. The introductory title sequence describes Lightyear as the movie Andy saw that inspired him to ask his mom for a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. (The result of which we saw in Toy Story.) The Lightyear of this movie, however, is human, not a toy. He is a Space Ranger and a member of Star Command, closer to an astronaut than the cartoon everyone is intimately familiar with. All this framing device (if I can call it such) does is add confusion. Why not just create a movie where Buzz (the toy) has an adventure in outer space? How about something off-the-wall, where Bonnie (his owner as of Toy Story 3) mistakenly leaves him behind at NASA, and he accidentally winds up in outer space? I could come up with several concepts for a movie about Buzz, any of which would be more interesting than this movie.
In Lightyear, a spaceship filled with explorers in suspended animation lands on a distant planet. Buzz (aptly voiced by Chris Evans) and his colleagues, Alisha (Uzo Aduba, underutilized) and rookie Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader, criminally underutilized) head out to explore the world. Buzz narrates the experience into his wrist-recorder, using callback lines like, “The planet surface is…unstable.” Since this movie serves as a prequel of sorts, I mentally debated whether moments like these are fan service or call-backs. Regardless, they are sprinkled throughout the movie, but not to a degree that becomes tedious.
Buzz, Alisha and Featherwhatnot quickly encounter trouble in the form of huge, creeping vines that want to drag them underground, presumably to eat them. (I’m making a wild guess here.) The vines also get their leaves on the ship, and three barely manage to get back to the ship before it is destroyed. Buzz, shunning the help of both Featheringhamstan and I.V.A.N., the computer guidance system, gets the ship airborne but damages it in the process.
The ship’s fuel cell is damaged, and with no backup available (!), Buzz and Alisha awaken the passengers. Buzz admits to causing the mess everyone is in and resigns his commission. Alisha, however, sees a useful purpose for Buzz besides sitting in the brig. A year later, a colony is established and a new fuel is created from the planet’s resources. Buzz is the designated test pilot, and he accepts the risks involved, which include the possibility of the cell exploding. It’s actually a clever idea on Alisha’s part. On the one hand, it gives Buzz something to do that will make him feel useful. On the other hand, keeping Buzz busy will allow everyone else to get on with their lives without worrying that Buzz will put them all in danger yet again. And if the fuel cell explodes, the only one who would be affected will be Buzz.
The initial test run of the fuel fails, and when Buzz returns home, he’s told that four years have passed. Alisha tells him that she has become engaged, and Buzz is genuinely happy for her. He’s still intent on correcting the mistake he made. As part of his reentry acclimation process, Star Command gives Buzz a computerized cat named SOX (Peter Sohn). Buzz, true to form, dislikes all sentient computers and tasks SOX with fixing the problem with the fuel cell. Buzz keeps flying test missions, and every one of them fails. Meanwhile, Alisha gets married (to her girlfriend), has a baby, and grows old. I didn’t mind that Lightyear’s plot cribbed from both Interstellar and Up. The problem I had is that this movie pales in comparison to both of those movies.
After his latest test run, Buzz learns that Alisha has died and has been replaced by Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) Burnside grounds Buzz in favor of the new “laser shield”. The colony has decided to stay where they are, and there’s no need for Buzz to do any more test runs. To Buzz’s surprise, after sixty-plus years of plugging away at the problem, SOX has fixed the issue with the fuel. Buzz hijacks his spaceship for one last trial run, and the new fuel works.
When Buzz returns to the surface, he finds that the planet is under assault by robots who originate from a huge spaceship in the planet’s atmosphere. Curiously, they say one word: Zurg. Buzz is rescued from the robots by Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s grand-daughter. She, along with her fellow misfits Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules) have a plan to deal with the invaders. To say that the three are a rag-tag bunch would be an understatement. Eventually, after some mistakes, Buzz is taken to the ship to meet Zurg.
Zurg isn’t Zurg, however. Zurg is actually Old Buzz from the future. Honestly, this part of the plot lost me. Sometime in the past, an alternate version of Buzz was about to be grounded by Burnside and took off instead. (There are just too many multiverses flying around these days!) Old Buzz encountered an abandoned alien vessel full of awesome tech and waited for the Young Buzz to reemerge with the fuel cell. This makes Buzz both the hero and the villain of the movie. If this plot twist rings a bell, it’s a direct rip-off of The Lego Movie: The Second Part. Sigh. Oh, and if you were wondering where the name Zurg came from, it’s because the robots that serve Old Buzz can’t say “Buzz”. “Zurg” is the best approximation of his name they can manage. Hmm.
Zurg/Old Buzz is still intent on correcting his mistake from all those years ago. With the working fuel cell, Old Buzz can travel back in time and make it so that the ship never lands on the planet in the first place. Young Buzz realizes that if that happens, Izzy may never be born. Young Buzz and Old Buzz duke it out, and Young Buzz wins. Everyone returns to the planet safe and sound, happy as clams underneath the laser shield (which also functions as a bug zapper).
About thirty minutes into Lightyear, I realized that this movie is the worst Pixar has ever produced. As I mentioned above, Pixar isn’t immune from putting out a clunker every now and then. What is shocking is that so little of Lightyear works as entertainment. The movie’s bizarre framing device doesn’t help matters, but it’s actually just one small issue amidst many larger issues that prevent the movie from achieving what so many other Pixar movies do: being entertaining and enlightening.
Lightyear’s characterization of Buzz is head-scratching. He’s similar to the character in the Toy Story movies in that he’s overconfident, officious and lacking in self-awareness, but not in ways that are funny. Additionally, this Buzz has some serious personality flaws. For reasons unexplained, he shuns help and insists on doing everything himself, a trait that endangers himself and everyone he’s responsible for. Then, instead of accepting his limitations and moving on from his failures, he dwells on them and fixates on them. Buzz’s single-mindedness borders on OCD, to the point where he should have been getting intense psychological counseling instead of being anywhere near a spacecraft.
Buzz’s dislike of computers is prominent in the story but also never explained. It’s a strange attitude for a space ranger to have, because if it weren’t for computers, Buzz wouldn’t be in space at all. His technophobia does generate a few laughs, but that’s only because the character of SOX is written to be funny. Buzz is also openly hostile to I.V.A.N., the ship’s virtual assistant, whose only fault is warning him that he’s in danger of crashing the ship.
Rounding out Buzz’s odd collection of personality traits is how he constantly refuses the help from others he considers inferior. He’s either incredibly stubborn or a prig in this regard, take your pick. Again, no explanation is given for why he acts this way. He just does and everyone else deals with the consequences of his actions. If the character weren’t named Buzz Lightyear, looked like Buzz Lightyear and used Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase, there would be no reason to like him at all. (What likeability Buzz does have is entirely due to Chris Evans’ line readings.) If Tim Allen sees this movie, I suspect he may be grateful he wasn’t asked to return in the role. Even he couldn’t have done anything with such a misbegotten take on a character he made his own.
In terms of the story itself, it’s a mind-bogglingly pedestrian adventure for a space ranger. Actually, the adventure part of the movie is over and done with before the first act is over. Alisha and Buzz explore the planet, and then before you know it, everyone is trapped on it. From that point on, the movie spins its wheels while Buzz does test runs until SOX solves the problem with the fuel formula. Then, Buzz, Izzy and the misfits fight some bugs and robots until Zurg/Old Buzz appears. After Zurg is defeated, the movie morphs into The Wizard of Oz, and there’s no place like (the new) home. For a studio that created Wall-E, Lightyear is a science-fiction adventure without a script of imagination. Even the spaceships in Lightyear are bland. The movie’s early joke is how the exploration vessel looks like a turnip. Ha. Even Zurg’s ship and his robot crew look generic. Compared to a movie like Wall-E, where every spaceship and robot had a distinct, eye-catching visual style, everything in Lightyear looks drab and lifeless. Here’s a depressing thought: Wall-E came out fourteen years ago. If you hadn’t seen either movie before and watched them back-to-back, wouldn’t you think that Wall-E is the newer one?
For a studio that always found humor in any situation, the script of Lightyear is just lazy. The initial nods at fan service are practically inspired in comparison to what follows them. After Buzz says the same things that his toy counterpart said in Toy Story, there’s a lazy joke about how difficult it is to say the rookie’s name. SOX, who is the only funny character in the movie, says he can make whale sounds to help Buzz fall asleep. Buzz can turn off the light in his room via “the clapper”. The fact that the writers thought that the robots saying “zurg” when they mean to say “buzz” would be funny is a sign that nobody with a sense of humor worked on this script.
The Toy Story movies have always dabbled in “crude humor”, so I wasn’t offended that there is a “hey dude, pull my finger” joke. The fact that the writers used Buzz’s catch as the jumping-off point for that joke was practically sacrilegious. (Again, who at Disney/Pixar thought this material was good in any way?)
Mo and Darby, the designated comic relief characters, but don’t say or do anything funny. Mo’s deal is that he’s a coward, clumsy, experiences motion sickness and has a fondness for pens. Darby just likes to shoot stuff. These characters could have been funny, but they’re nothing more than rough outlines. The extent that they are funny at all is how “funny” their voices are (more on that below). I saw the movie in a small theater with fifty people, and I didn’t hear anyone laugh once. Maybe the writers tired themselves out coming up with that framing device.
One of Lightyear’s few bright spots is the cast. If only they had good material to work with. As I mentioned above, Chris Evens does a nice job as Lightyear. He employs the same earnestness to his line readings that served him well as Captain America. Unfortunately, his only noteworthy lines are those lifted verbatim from the Toy Story movies. I immediately recognized Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black), Bill Hader (Barry) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (many Law & Order episodes) in supporting roles, but none of them are given anything clever to say. Taika Waititi shows up and lends his Kiwi-inflections to Mo, while Dale Soules’ Darby sounds like a three-pack-a-day grandmother. Sounding funny rarely is a substitute for actually being funny, however. Speaking of which, why does IVAN, the ship’s virtual assistant, have a woman’s voice? How can that not be the source of a single joke? In all fairness, I’ll credit the writers for including one character who was actually interesting and funny: SOX. I shudder to think of what the movie would have been without him. (It would have been an unfunny wasteland.)
Before wrapping up, I want to acknowledge Disney for again taking positive steps towards diversity and inclusion with Lightyear. The cast is multiracial and features a LGBTQ character in Alisha. I’m glad Disney showed courage and didn’t back down from including a brief, chaste kiss between Alisha and her spouse. If only the rest of the movie had the same willingness to take risks.