To Infinity... and Disappointment


I’m not here to argue that the Toy Story films are anything other than classics. The first one, released all the way back in 1995, was more than just a proof-of-concept tech demo for the burgeoning 3D animated film sector, it was a bonafide hit film with heart. It spawned two equally classic films (and a fourth movie that we probably shouldn’t talk about) as well as a number of shorts and even a 2D animated TV series featuring lead character Buzz Lightyear. For many fans, Toy Story is Pixar, and when a new film in the franchise was announced, the fandom would wait with baited breath. They’d turn out for the movie, they’d make it a hit, and the movie would go down as another instant classic for the franchise. You could do no wrong with Toy Story.

Well, except for that fourth movie. It was pretty, and plenty of people liked it, giving Pixar another Billion-plus return at the Box Office. But many fans, after the fact, have talked about how the movie doesn’t really work in the context of the previous films, that it kind of ruins the character of Woody. If you like the film, I won’t try to say you’re wrong. But it is a bit of a black sheep in the series. Still, it was a success so, clearly, more Toy Story films would be on the way. And we got another, in the form of Lightyear… and no one showed up for it.

There are a few factors that could have played into Lightyear not being the smash hit that Disney and Pixar probably expected. For starters, Disney had been releasing Pixar’s films, during the pandemic, over on Disney+ and audiences likely got used to that. Even when Disney animated films started making their way over to theaters, Pixar’s movies, such as Luca and Turning Red, continued going to Disney’s streaming service. They needed content and for some reason Pixar’s films were deemed “right for streaming”. Audiences were trained to look on Disney+ for their Pixar fix and even if a film came out in theaters they knew they’d eventually be able to see it over on streaming soon enough.

We could also argue that the title, and concept, of the film were confusing for audiences. The movie isn’t Toy Story Presents Lightyear, which at least might have clued people (those that don’t pay attention to anything except the marquee at the theater listing what films are playing) into what the film was about. The movie is also in this weird place where it doesn’t exist in the Toy Story universe but is, instead, a movie within those movies. It’s “Andy’s favorite movie” that inspired the line of Buzz Lightyear toys. From a viewer perspective, having that text at the start of the film (instead of letting the movie stand on its own without explanation) already pulls us out of the film. We’re watching something fake within something fake. It’s a weird layout of artifice that never quite gets shaken within the film. It’s just weird.

That, of course, leads us to the big reason, I think, this film wasn’t a hit: it’s not great. Pixar, as a company, has set a standard so high that very few other animation firms can match. There are plenty of hits from other firms, but when you think upon the classics of the 3D animated form, Pixar’s movies are all top of the list. Lightyear, while watchable and fun, isn’t up to Pixar’s own high standards. It’s a decently average Pixar film, which, yes, is still generally miles better than most works from the other studios, but when you see the name “Pixar” on a film, you have expectations. And when it’s a film associated with Toy Story, the franchise that acts as the gold standard for the film company, then that movie better be good. Lightyear is not anywhere near that good.

To be clear, Lightyear is a perfectly fun, silly little movie. Parts of it are quite affecting, telling the story of a headstrong hero that doesn’t understand how to let go and enjoy the life, and world, around him. But that story is largely abandoned by the end of the first act and everything after is a much more standard, and rote, hero adventure. Guy doesn’t like to work with other people, always feels like he has to go it alone, and then he pays the price when, repeatedly, that doesn’t go the way he planned. In the end he has to learn to work with others to save his team, and everyone else depending on him. As soon as Buzz, in the first five minutes, says, “I can do it myself,” you can already see the rest of the plot laid out before you.

To be specific, the film stars Chris Evans as the new voice of Buzz Lightyear (replacing Tim Allen in the role, although he does a pretty solid job duplicating the sound and rhythms of Allen’s performance). When the colony science ship he’s on discovers a new planet, the ship wakes up Buzz along with Buzz’s best friend, and commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). The two, along with a cadet, go down to explore the planet, but what they discover is that while the planet seems hospitable to life, it is also populated by dangerous bugs and man-eating vines. They try to launch the ship, which is getting wrapped up in vines, but Buzz only manages (by rejecting the help of the cadet) to crash the ship harder, leaving the whole crew stranded… not that anyone other than Buzz blames him for that. With this ship crashed, the crew realizes that their primary power crystal that fuels the hyperdrive is also down. The only way to get off the rock is to develop a new fuel crystal from the local compounds.

For the next year (shown in quick montage) the science team builds a launch gantry, designs a test ship, and creates a fuel crystal. Buzz then is sent up in the ship to fly around the local star and report back on the stability of the crystal. It breaks in mid-flight and Buzz has to limp the ship back. But what he discovers is that while he was gone, in a flight that felt like minutes to him, he was stuck in time dilation and was gone for four years. He missed a lot of his friend’s life, but he knows he has to try again, and again. Maybe this time the crystal will work. And with the help of a robotic pet (that is more than just a pet) he does eventually develop the right crystal formula. It takes 62 years, and a huge number of flights, to get there, but they have the crystal. Only problem is that while Buzz was gone on the last flight invaders have come for the planet and if he does think fast, and work with a new team, all to save the people he was fighting to protect could be lost.

Legitimately, the first act of the film has its best moments. The slow montage of Buzz flying off, coming back, and seeing what’s happened in the life of his friend in the four years he’s lost really drives right to the viewer’s emotional center. I think this really should have been the movie. Not all the stuff that comes after but this, the things he’s losing by constantly going away. The lesson of the film should be for Buzz to realize that he’s losing too much trying to get off planet when, instead, he should appreciate what he has right in front of him. And the film even tells us this, with everyone else happy to make a new life on the planet while Buzz has to keep going back up, never settling down or learning what life there could be.

Hell, we never even learn what it is, exactly, that Buzz is trying to get back to. Was this a colony ship sent out into space to find a new planet to settle, or a trip returning from a planet, going back home. Buzz talks a lot about “going home”, how he has to get everyone home, but we don’t know where that is, what they’re going to, or why they’d want to go there. The film lacks the context we need to make us care about Buzz’s mission, beyond an amorphous, “let’s get home”. Hell, even the danger posed by the planet, the bugs and the vines, is treated more as a joke after the initial encounter. The people of the planet have learned to make it work, so why bother leaving? If this is a colony ship, as you expect it is, then this is the colony. Full stop.

The time dilation also causes some issues with the plotting. Let’s say they really were going home, and they wanted to get back to, say, Earth. We learn here that hyperspace causes time dilation. If they were flying home, in hyperspace, just how many years would that take, real time? If one trip at full power around a star loses Buzz 20-odd years (as the film tells us) then what would a long trip to Earth take. How many thousands of years would they lose? What would the planet even look like by the time they got there? Time dilation is a great mechanic for the local story of this planet, but the second you start to stretch out across the galaxy you have to realize that the Space Federation would never be able to use the tech and actually, you know, build a Federation.

And then we have to get into the rest of the film, the other two acts that introduce the villain of the story, Zurg, and all his robots. This is where the film gets drastically less interesting because, at this point, we lose any consideration for Buzz and what he was leaving behind by going into space again and again. We’re back to the story of Buzz being a headstrong hero that doesn’t work with others. Except… yes he does. His best friend, commanding officer, and work partner was Alisha and he happily worked with her on every mission. We see this in the first few minutes of the film, directly undercutting the hero lesson they were trying to teach him all along. It takes that message and instead twists. He thinks he can’t work with cadets because they’re untrained and unfocused and, frankly, that seems fair. Instead of working with cadets he should have worked with Alisha. They split up and that was when Buzz failed. The only lesson he needed to learn there was to stick with Alisha. Oops.

Of course, the introduction of Zurg and his minions ties back into one of the big problems with this film: it has to be Andy’s favorite movie. As we saw in the other Toy Story films, Zurg was a key part of the product line, and if this was the movie that inspired Andy’s love for Buzz, and all the toys that came out, Zurg had to be here too. But the villain of this movie is so superfluous, and tacked on, that he never lands emotionally. By the time he’s revealed, and Buzz has to work against him, our hero has already learned all his lessons and has nothing to gain from the confrontation. The movie could have ended long before Zurg even arrived and it would have been drastically better… but then it wouldn’t have been Andy’s movie.

If there’s anything that works in the latter parts of the film it’s Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz’s robotic cat. Sox is great, stealing every scene he’s in. I honestly wanted more of him, and more to the development of his relationship with Buzz. Sox never went on the missions with Buzz, instead staying behind in Buzz’s room, so as far as the timeline of the movie is concerned, Buzz has known this cat for less than a week while Sox is 62 years old and Buzz is barely blips on his radar. And yet the film acts like they have an owner/pet relationship like any other. Buzz quickly starts referring to Sox as “his cat” and caring about what happens to him (and not just because Sox comes up with the formula for the hyper-crystals). But it’s a relationship that only really works because Sohn does such a good job voicing Sox that you forget the two characters barely know each other. It’s a flaw, but one of the smaller ones in the movie.

There is no doubt that this is a misfire for Pixar. It was a failure at the Box Office, only making $226.4 Mil against a budget of $200 Mil, and it’s been largely ignored by fans. There are a whole host of reasons for this but, end of the day, this film just wasn’t as good as it needed to be. There’s a great movie lurking in the first act of this movie, but due to the constraints of fitting this into the larger Toy Story narrative, the film had to compromise. A better film would have just been a Buzz Lightyear story on its own terms without trying to tie it into known continuity. It could have just been good. Sadly we didn’t get that movie, and with the failure of Lightyear, we likely never will.