Lightyear: A Flawed And Nostalgic Space Trip

By | November 7, 2022

Lightyear Is Not What I Was Hoping For From Pixar

Lightyear is a movie I didn’t want. I count on Pixar to do new things, and in my mind, Toy Story ended with its third installment, and there shouldn’t be more of it. And no, I haven’t seen the fourth one. But now that I’ve watched Lightyear, I shouldn’t have doubted Pixar as much as I did. Even their less-good movies are rich with wonderful animation and heartfelt moments. Lightyear ain’t no WALL-E, but it’s also not as bad as Cars.

It’s also a fun change of pace for Pixar. Lightyear is straight-up pulpy science fiction without compromise. The first scene is messages declaring this an in-universe Toy Story movie about Buzz Lightyear. It’s meant to be a parody/homage to things like Star Wars and Star Trek.

The Film Nails The Feel Of This Specific Subgenre

And this gives it so much leeway, even when critically analyzing it. Anytime I was like, “well, that’s some convenient science fiction nonsense,” I remembered how much I used to love the same type of shenanigans in Doctor Who. Pixar probably could’ve made a more internally consistent science-fiction story, but that’s not the point of Lightyear. The point is lasers, robots, explosions, and space travel are fun and cool.

But make no mistake, the plot is nonsensically held together by pure emotional convenience and mostly arbitrary rules. Time travel is a tricky subject for any writer, but the further the plot went, the more I had to remember that it’s meant to be a little farfetched and silly. Everything involving Zurg, down to why he’s called that, is baffling, but it was cool to see him and Buzz fight.


The Plot Of Lightyear Is Full Of Weird Contrivances

I harped on emotional resonance before, so let’s get to that. And, surprise of all surprises, Pixar gut punches the audience with multiple heartrending concepts basically as fast as they could reasonably fit them into the plot. Interstellar proved that time dilation is an effective tool for evoking nigh-universal tragic circumstances, and Lightyear pulls the same narrative trick. But they somehow make it even sadder by lingering on its implications. Watching Buzz enter hyperspace repeatedly hammers home the main theme of his arc in a way that’s hard to ignore. Now, that said, I wish the only confirmed LGBTQ+ characters in the whole movie didn’t have to die for Buzz’s character arc. It’s somehow both a slightly more complex and modified form (because, technically, they live full, long lives off-screen) of the rancid tropes of “fridging” and “bury your gays.” I know Disney has a long, fraught history with representation, but I would’ve figured they’d avoid those tropes in a 2022 film.  

This moment also, unfortunately, architecturally supports a lot of the later plot. Pixar is well-known for tackling emotionally dense yet oddly universal themes, and this one is “what does it mean for a life to take a different path than you expected?” And, at the very least, they do some mildly interesting things with the existential question posed, even if the conclusion is obvious if you think about it for a second. I’d argue both Up and Monsters University tackle these concepts better, but I appreciate that even when doing pulp science fiction, they attempted something complex. They’ve gotten this far by making family movies, not just kids’ movies, and that’s the biggest distinction of the “subgenres.”

Lightyear At Least Tried To Explore All Its Themes

You may have noticed I’ve yet to get to the characters in any meaningful way… mostly because they aren’t that deep. We also get very little time with some of them, having to rely on signifiers of life milestones. Buzz has a clear arc and mindset that slowly gets altered to something healthier like any Pixar main character, but he’s just broadly an adventuring space ranger. I mostly enjoyed his general banter, especially with Alisha Hawthorne for the brief time she’s around. But Buzz is just how you expect Buzz to be, cliches and all. His support cast also falls into similar archetypes, and you can easily tell what flaws they must overcome for the story to continue. You’ve got a person crushed by expectations, a “quitter” who is also a klutz, and a grizzled ex-con. SOX, the robotic cat, is an exception and is the second cutest mascot character I’ve seen in fiction (only beaten by Pugsley from Dead End: Paranormal Park), but SOX also doesn’t have an arc or changes in any real way.

Many minor characters feel rushed, honestly, with happy endings that almost seem too happy given the plot’s events. I don’t think a plot point about astrophobia is even resolved. She just faces it and then presumably no longer has it. Again, pulpy sci-fi is the defense, but it’s not nearly as strong of one here.


The Characters Aren’t The Best Part Of The Movie

On the actually positive side of things, let’s talk about that science fiction next. The gadgets, lasers, and gizmos. Regarding those esthetics, I have zippo complaints. Lightyear is a gorgeous film, with so many tiny moments to sell it as a future world. Space suits are bulky, spaceships look sleek and fly in a satisfying way, and laser weapons hit hard and fast. I would’ve loved to see Buzz get into a protracted space battle, ala Attack of the Clones, simply because I’m sure it would’ve been visually stunning. Pixar bothers to animate reflections in visors and show wet spots where food touched a table, and I’m always blown away by that level of craft. No matter what, you can always count on that.

Like I said at the top, Lightyear is not one of Pixar’s best, but it’s got a lot of stuff in it that will delight fans of Buzz Lightyear the character. Each callback to Toy Story is a fun moment that doesn’t break the movie’s internal narrative (except the literal narrating thing—that’s a little silly). When we first see his wings in action was especially fun and cheerworthy. The story has a lot of flaws, and the comedy is extremely hit or miss, but Lightyear captures the magic of the genre it emulates and the nostalgia it’s built upon. If Pixar wants to expand by doing more “in-universe” media, I’m not opposed. It produces far more interesting results than spitting out another sequel. 

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