Audiences have been asking a certain question for 27 years since the release of Toy Story, practically banging on Pixar’s office doors, begging for an answer: Where did Buzz Lightyear, that film’s grinning spaceman action figure, come from? Well, dear viewers, you needn’t ponder any longer. In theaters this week is Lightyear, an explosive sci-fi adventure that proudly proclaims its purpose in its opening title card: “In 1995, Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”
Take a minute to collect yourself. Hollywood is so lost in the rabbit holes of its own intellectual property that it’s cooking up origin stories for fictional toys. In case anyone was actually perplexed about why a young child might enjoy playing with a “space ranger” doll in Toy Story, here’s Lightyear, a fairly straightforward epic about an astronaut named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans, rather than Toy Story’s Tim Allen) who fights aliens, fires lasers, and engages in all kinds of cosmic derring-do. Canonically, I suppose this in-universe movie would have been aimed at audiences from the mid-’90s, even though nothing about it really screams “retro”—but perhaps I’m overthinking things.
Or perhaps I’m most confused by the fact that Lightyear is billed as a movie from the fictional universe of another movie, even though what is actually playing out on-screen is formulaic to the point of dullness. Nothing is particularly egregious about Angus MacLane’s film, which tosses its bulbous-jawed hero into a narrative of planet colonization and time dilation that feels a little like diet Interstellar. But I’m having trouble viewing Lightyear as anything but a cynical exercise—Pixar’s attempt to make a movie that can be marketed toward action-junkie teens that is a lot less inventive and sensitive than other recent efforts such as Luca, Soul, and Turning Red.
Even more irritatingly, all three of those movies were relegated to playing primarily on Disney+. That approach felt especially galling in the case of Turning Red, which had a direct-to-streaming release even as many other animated films had returned to cinemas. Lightyear, with its brand-name attachment to Pixar’s biggest franchise, will of course have a wide theatrical release so everyone can enjoy all the zaps and hyper-speed jumps on the biggest screen. But while all of the film’s visual excitement is handled with Pixar’s usual polish, the intrigue is only surface-level.
Part of the issue is the title character. The Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story is a spot-on parody of the brainless action heroes of the ’90s. He’s a “shoot first, ask questions later” alpha male, so convinced of his own expertise and heroism that he is unaware of his actual status as a conscious toy. Remove that bizarre internal dilemma and Lightyear’s Buzz is just a boring, if well-meaning, military grunt, in the mold of Evans’s work as Captain America but with the edges further sanded off. His character arc is simply that he has to learn to collaborate with his teammates a little more and be less of a maverick, a fairly standard-issue plot.
Lightyear’s only big twist is that its action is mostly planet-bound. Buzz is a member of the Space Ranger Corps (whatever that is), and in this film he’s part of a colonist mission, piloting a turnip-shaped ship around the galaxy in search of habitable worlds. When he and his commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), crash-land on a planet populated with hostile vine creatures, they start building experimental ships to try to escape. Buzz gets caught in a weird time-dilation situation every time he tests them: While minutes pass for him in the sky, years pass down below. The bulk of Lightyear’s story sees Buzz working alongside Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), to fight off a strange robotic-alien invasion.
Pixar sprinkled in some shock value by mostly keeping Buzz away from outer space, but because the “character” was first introduced to me as a plastic trinket living in a child’s bedroom, I didn’t really have expectations that needed subverting. I cannot deny that Lightyear is a perfectly functional sci-fi tale: The action is crisp, and the banter between Buzz and his fellow rangers is adequate. But Pixar movies usually succeed in creating whole worlds out of unexpected pockets of imagination—such as the inner lives of emotions in Inside Out, or the far-future robots of WALL-E. Lightyear is a fine starter-kit adventure, but given the studio’s impressive creative yardstick, its shallowness left me seriously wanting.