Hollywood has produced quite a few superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy “origin” films, which rewind a series’ timeline to take a deeper look at a popular character. But I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a film that goes to the trouble of telling the origin story… of a manufactured toy in a fictional universe.
That is what this week’s Lightyear is: a fictional film that explains why a fictional toy was created in another fictional film. The overly serious Toy Story hero Buzz Lightyear, full of catch phrases and push-action tricks on his plastic spacesuit, wasn’t originally a children’s cartoon character, Pixar now says. The toy we grew to love was actually the children’s-toy version of a serious “live-action” sci-fi hero—or, at least, live in the way that Andy was a “real” person in the Toy Story universe.
Part of me hoped that such a twist on an existing fictional character would let Pixar run wild with classic sci-fi inspirations. But that’s not what Lightyear is. This new film, debuting exclusively in theaters, is nowhere near the tribute to past boundary-pushing blockbusters that its trailer suggested.
Instead, it awkwardly splits the difference between a ’90s Bruckheimer flick and a modern Pixar family romp. The result is, unsurprisingly, a perfectly watchable film, and it comes with the usual Pixar standards of top-tier digital animation effects, solid voice acting, likable characters, and moments both touching and hilarious. But unless you’re a preteen at roughly the same age as Toy Story‘s Andy, you’ll likely feel shortchanged by the film as a whole.
“This is that film”
An early text crawl opens the film with direct mentions of Toy Story‘s timeline, along with a suggestion that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite film as a kid. “This is that film,” the text concludes. A redesigned Buzz Lightyear, now voiced by Chris Evans (Captain America) with a very Tim Allen-like affectation and an actual mop of hair, lands a massive shuttle spacecraft onto an unfamiliar planet. When that landing goes awry, he, his Space Rangers, and hundreds of military personnel are trapped and unable to return to Earth due to a newly broken warp drive.
Though this opening scene sets up his solid rapport with another Space Ranger (played by Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black), that bond is soon interrupted by a massive plot rug-pull. To keep spoilers to a minimum, Buzz gets caught up in a guilt spiral over the failed landing, and he chooses to plow ahead with an idea that could get his entire crew back home. This obsession leads to a massive schism between him and the rest of his crew.
So much so, in fact, that the film resets at the 30-minute mark to introduce a new supporting cast. The well-trained Space Rangers vanish, and they’re replaced by a ragtag trio of space-colony outcasts. Their apparent leader, a young woman named Izzy (voiced by Keke Palmer), has more ambition and excitement than she does experience.