REVIEW: Lightyear (2022)

If there is a soulless opposite to the joyous creativity of Pixar’s early master works, it is- actually, it is probably still Cars, a seemingly cynical exercise in marketing toy cars to children. A close second, however, is likely to be Lightyear (2022). It is an odd, confusing sort of thing. I would argue its root problem is that it is ill-conceived from the basic principles. In 1995’s Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear was a toy come to life who believed himself to be the ‘real’ space-faring hero of some unseen movie franchise. In 2022’s Lightyear, we are in effect seeing that fictional science fiction film for the first time.

It is a poorly conceived idea. The appeal of the original Buzz Lightyear, played by Tim Allen, was in his delusion that he was actually a ‘space ranger’ and not a child’s plaything. The excess of personality, the ridiculous bravado, and the inflexible certainty of his identity all made him an enjoyably comic protagonist – and well balanced against Ton Hank’s over-stressed, worrisome Woody. It was a classic comedy double act, and while Buzz’s delusion only held to the climax of that first film the comedy team-up worked well for another three sequels.

The Buzz Lightyear of this new spin-off, directed by Angus MacLane, is neither deluded nor comedic. He is a classic science fiction hero embarking on a dangerous adventure. All of the elements that made the Toy Story Buzz enjoyable to watch have been stripped from him. Even Buzz’s voice has shifted from Allen’s light-hearted enthusiasm to Chris Evan’s stoic, more reserved attempt. Anything interesting about the character has been stripped from him, and what is left is a by-the-numbers science fiction film with a plot already mined out by generations of earlier movies.

The answer to why Pixar Animation Studios would embark on such a weirdly generic enterprise is depressing and obvious. Toy Story was a merchandise and licensing gold mine, while the ongoing narrative of the films reached a natural end point not once but twice – in the third and fourth films. Lightyear enables the production of further adventures for Buzz, even if it is not the original Buzz. In theory, it sustains the generation of toys, video games, and other commercial exploits for another three or four years.

Perhaps I am being wholly unfair to the company. It very well may be that there was a strong interest in extending the character for creative reasons, and to utilise him to expand into a more mature style of animated feature. This would not explain why it feels so perfunctory and disinterested in its own content. The last time I felt so disappointed by a Pixar film was, predictably, John Lassetter’s Cars trilogy – which seemed to flounder creatively but which generated one of the highest-selling brands for boys toys of all time.

Pixar released two feature films in 2022: this one received a worldwide theatrical release, and generated a raft of action figures, Hot Wheels cars, and Lego sets that continue to warm department store pegs across the globe. The other was Turning Red: an inspired original story that was beautifully animated, but which was relegated directly to Disney+ with no merchandising despite a world of commercial potential. Whether it was Pixar that made the choice, or Walt Disney that made it for them, it was the wrong move – and I suspect a lot of revenue has been left on the table as a result. It makes Lightyear a double failure in a way, since even accepting its sole purpose is to make money it has struggled to succeed.

The filmmakers that created Pixar’s greatest creative successes – Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E – would never have made Lightyear. The legacy for inventiveness and quality that marked the studio’s first two decades is perilously close to becoming a distant memory, unless they and Disney stop releasing mediocre works like this and do a better job of promoting those like Turning Red.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.