After seeing a mid-afternoon screening of Lightyear, the newest film from the tear-jerker, animation behemoth Pixar, I found myself quite perplexed. I certainly did not hate the film, but I didn’t particularly love it either. There are no huge glaring problems with the movie, aside from a major plot reveal in the last act that truly makes no sense, so I wasn’t sure what was holding me back from being able to say I enjoyed the movie. Now having sat with the movie for over 24 hours, I believe I have pinpointed the main issue I have with the movie: the film operates as a message first, story second, which is my major problem with the latest round of Pixar movies I have seen.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, spoiler-y details, I’ll provide a basic synopsis of the film and any recommendations if applicable. The film, written and directed by Angus MacLane, opens on title cards explaining that in 1995 (the year Toy Story was released in our world) Andy saw this exact movie in theaters which inspired him to buy the now-iconic Buzz Lightyear toy featured in those films. As the actual film starts, we’re introduced to Galactic Ranger Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans, taking over for the controversial Tim Allen) and his commanding officer/friend Alicia Hawthorne (voiced excellently by Uzo Aduba) as they land their spaceship on a foreign planet named T’kani Prime on their mission to find a habitable planet to colonize. They quickly realize that the planet is not as habitable as they thought and try to escape the planet, but Buzz’s hubris gets in the way. Trying to do all the work himself to save everyone, Buzz accidentally damages the ship and strands the crew on the planet. After a year on the planet, Buzz volunteers to test the fuel source that allows the ship to travel in hyperspeed, called hyperspace crystals. Buzz fails the initial test, only to return and realize what felt like four minutes to him in space was actually four years back on T’kani Prime. Buzz continues to test the hyperspace crystals, each time skipping four years into the future, and over time a colony forms on the planet. Years pass, and people age and die, but Buzz still continues on with his seemingly fruitless mission. After figuring out the hyperspace crystal formula thanks to Sox (Buzz’s robot feline companion and the best part of the movie), Buzz tests out the fuel one last time and finally succeeds! Upon returning to T’kani Prime, however, Buzz discovers that an evil emperor named Zurg has invaded and is threatening the peace of the colony. Now, Buzz must work with a ragtag team of misfits, including Alicia’s granddaughter Izzy (voiced by Keke Palmer), to take down Zurg and save the colony once and for all. (I wish that last part was just a joke, but that’s the actual setup for the last 2/3rds of the movie…)
Overall, I would say I enjoyed this movie. It wasn’t sensational or anything, and surely does not compare with the classics in the Pixar catalog, but it’s still a Pixar movie. At this point, they have a solid blueprint over there for their animated films, so why fix what isn’t broken? If you have kids or like Disney, you will have a great time with this movie. This wasn’t the funniest movie from Pixar, in fact, it’s actually quite serious and devoid of fun at parts, but the kids in my theater were very invested in what was happening on screen. If you love the Toy Story films, you might find Lightyearto be a bit sacrilegious, but you’ll still probably enjoy yourself. There are genuine spoilers for this movie so if you do want to see it, I recommend reading as little about it as possible and going in blind.
Okay, time to discuss the film in-depth. Beware, spoilers! Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Let’s start with the biggest spoiler. It’s revealed at the start of the third act that Zurg is not Buzz’s father, but instead is an older version of Buzz that traveled to the future and back to fix his mistake of crashing the ship on T’kani Prime. While I thought that this was an interesting twist as I was watching it in theaters, the more time I spend thinking about this twist, the less sense it makes. How are there two Buzzes? How do they exist at the same time? If the older Buzz can travel back in time, why not go to the exact moment the ship crashed? Why was Zurg’s ship floating aimlessly through space for anyone to find? Where is the actual Zurg? Will the real Zurg please stand up?!? I’m sure some of these were answered in the movie, but I just about turned my brain into mush afterward trying to justify this twist. If you’re able to turn your brain off for this reveal, you’ll likely be very intrigued because the reveal does offer some interesting thematic material relating to the film’s message.
The best part of Lightyear, in my opinion, was the film’s themes centering around failure and learning from our mistakes. Buzz never finishes his mission or rectifies the mistake he made at the beginning of the film. Instead, the film almost centers on Buzz’s discovery that what he learns and how he grows from his mistake is more important than fixing the mistake itself. To drive home this idea, the central villain isn’t an evil space emperor, but rather Buzz himself – an older, embittered version of Buzz that never learns and continues to make the same mistakes again and again. It takes Buzz being faced with this version of himself for him to finally learn his lesson, which is a very interesting and compelling narrative choice. Buzz is then also faced with an interesting conundrum: if he goes back and prevents himself from damaging the ship on T’kani Prime, Alicia never would have found her wife and started her family. Confronted by the idea that genuine good came from his horrible mistake, Buzz chooses to move forward instead of looking back and resisting progress. That’s why I feel sort of split on the choice to make Zurg an older Buzz. On one hand, it really works thematically to further drive home the point the film was trying to make. On the other hand, it makes absolutely no sense from a story standpoint, as I explained in the paragraph above. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a more coherent explanation for this twist because it would have fixed my number one issue with the film.
Actually, it’s my number one issue with Pixar as an animation studio. Like with all the recent crop of Pixar films (aside from Luca and Turning Red, neither of which I have seen), Lightyear and its creative team focused so hard on having an important and compelling message that they forgot to make the plot as interesting or coherent. While the film’s themes and message border on philosophy, the plot plays it by the numbers. After Buzz returns to T’kani Prime to find that Zurg’s ship has invaded, the story follows such predictable beats that anyone with no knowledge of film structure could correctly guess how the movie unfolds. I would go beat by beat and discuss how by-the-numbers the plot is, but to be honest I’ve already forgotten most of the story beats past the first act. The story was just that unmemorable to me. If the description “a hero teams up with a ragtag team of misfits who don’t know what they’re doing, but somehow manage to beat the odds and save the day” sounds familiar to you at all, you’ve likely already seen this story before. The only interesting narrative decision that was made was the Zurg twist, but they couldn’t even find a way to make that reveal make sense or work logically in the story.
Finally, since it’s been a hot topic of conversation, I would like to discuss the LGBTQ+ representation in Lightyear. If you have not seen the movie or did not already know, the character of Alicia is queer and we see her in a happy relationship with a woman named Kiko (who wasn’t voiced by anyone because she had no lines…). Just to be clear, I have no problem with the inclusion of Alicia’s character, and kudos to the creative team for adding an LGBTQ+ character when they had no obligation to. My problem with her character is that she’s barely in the movie. Of all the “queer” Disney characters of late, this is probably one of the more fleshed-out characters they’ve given our community. However, what does it say about Disney’s representation of queer people if their most fleshed-out queer character dies in the first act of the movie? I’m not saying I needed to see Alicia and Kiko getting it on or anything like that, but the fact that we really only see them together in a montage where they age like they’re characters straight out of M. Night Shyamalan’s Old doesn’t sit right with me. I will always celebrate LGBTQ+ characters in entertainment, but for once I would like to see one of these characters live through the whole damn movie. Again, kudos to the creative team for including a queer character and for refusing to edit her out of the film in foreign markets, but her part is small enough that they could cut out her queerness and nothing about the film would be different in the grand scheme of things. If Kiko was a man instead of a woman, would the film change in any significant manner? I’d argue no. For this reason, I only count something as quality queer representation if the character’s queerness cannot be removed without seriously altering the narrative structure of the project, and, unfortunately, Lightyear does not meet that requirement.
Overall, I’m going to rate this movie Great, but Garbage. It’s technically well-made, has a great voice cast, impeccable animation, and is still an enjoyable moviegoing experience. However, something continues to hold me back from seriously liking this movie. Of all the movies made in the Toy Story universe, this is by far my least favorite (yes, I enjoyed Toy Story 4 more than this, sue me) and I cannot see myself revisiting this movie over the majority of other Pixar properties available. If you want to check out this film, Lightyear is currently playing in theaters and will likely hit Disney+ within the upcoming weeks.