Lightyear fails to launch

Dull and manipulative, the latest Pixar film brings nothing new to the table.

In Lightyear, a title card explains that the movie you are about to see was the popular film that inspired the original Buzz Lightyear toy (of Toy Story franchise fame). It’s a movie about a character who would go on to inspire a toy. Buzz is a galactic ranger on a mission in the far reaches of space who becomes stranded, along with his crew, due to his arrogant individualism. With no means of escape, the exploratory mission transforms into an escape mission, but as the years come and go, the surviving members of the ship start settling in for good.

Ever the outlier, Buzz Lightyear never loses sight of his original mission. Due to some quantum quirk, four years pass every time he attempts to leave the planet. Despite his friend and colleague, Alisha Hawthorne, insisting he stay on the planet and live out his life, he prefers to keep trying; as he barely ages a day, his friends begin to wrinkle, start families, retire and eventually die. If he wasn’t lonely before, he would be now. Soon his only companion is a small robotic cat named Sox.

The whole saccharine mess leads to Lightyear meeting a misfit band of strangers, one of whom is Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy, as the planet is under siege by giant robots. Through their misadventures, Buzz will learn to work and play well with others. The plot’s heavy-handedness is not offensive, if only because the film is intended for children. Yet, it seems with every new Pixar film since they cracked the audience weeping code with Up (2009) over a decade ago, the film’s overt sweetness and emotional manipulation rings hollow and artificial, particularly within a movie that feels blatantly like a push to sell merchandise. 

Despite the careful attention paid to establishing a distinction between Buzz Lightyear the man and Buzz Lightyear the doll, it’s difficult to escape the ouroboros of product-pushing inherent to Lightyear. From what we see in the first Toy Story film, this super successful movie launched the “must-have toy of the season.” Within the context of the original franchise, the Lightyear movie may have been like Star Wars, as the makers have suggested — but that doesn’t assuage the overwhelming feeling that this movie exists solely to recycle old IPs and to sell more products. 

That’s why one of Lightyear’s highlights is also one of the worst elements. Lightyear’s adorable robot cat Sox is similar to Baby Yoda. He plays on all the popular cat memes that have flooded the internet since the beginning. Like Baby Yoda, Sox’s presence rings increasingly false. While his presence is certainly not gratuitous, they make sure he’s critical to the plot; his creation feels calculated — a perfect algorithmic design intended to push toys on a ravenous collectors market. 

Sox becomes symptomatic of a more significant issue plaguing many Disney films lately: they feel soulless. Their emotional appeals are like papercut stings; they strike a nerve but are superficial. Every character and every choice feels utterly devoid of risk or personality. It’s almost as if they fit the collective unconscious of every diehard Disney fan into a great, big machine, and this was the best they could come up with. Even the jokes don’t work and are just characters reciting lines in a joke-like cadence (a sad remnant of Joss Whedon’s influence on pop culture). There does not seem to be an aspiration to create art or meaningful connections. It’s all so transparently profit-motivated. While that’s always, to a certain extent, been the case — it’s never felt so transparent and so devoid of heart. 

With astronomical money backing them, major studios like Disney are, perhaps unsurprisingly, increasingly risk-averse, but that also doesn’t mean that we have to like them as an audience. As the movie wraps itself up in a neat little bow, it feels so finite and limited, an ethereal experience that will fade shortly after you leave the cinema. ■

Lightyear, directed by Angus MacLane

Lightyear opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 17.

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