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“Lightyear” Soars When It Escapes the IP Shackles (Review)

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

It’s hard to escape the cynical genesis of this movie. Confusingly branded from the jump (voice actor Chris Evans once tweeted that it was about the human man upon whom the Buzz Lightyear toy was based), and the final explanation – that the film is the movie that blew Andy’s mind and inspired his desire for a Buzz figure back in 1995 – makes little sense. It feels like someone had a pitch for a fun space adventure, essentially Interstellar for families, and the Disney corporate machine foisted the Toy Story IP upon it. You want $200m for a space movie? It damn well better have our most famous Space Ranger.

The film’s opening action sequence – a battle with a tentacled monster and giant chitinous bugs – plays like a lazy assemblage of Buzz Lightyear quotes and callbacks: invigorating for my four year old and enervating for me. Even Evans feels like he’s doing a Tim Allen impersonation in these early moments and it left me with that horrible trapped feeling a bad movie can instill.

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

And then the film’s hidden conceit, teased but unsullied in the marketing, is revealed and everything gets better. It doesn’t quite hit the tear-jerking emotional floggings of Inside Out’s Bing Bong or the Up “Married Life” montage, but there’s something deeply baleful about the film’s central premise and mission. With a touch that could almost be described as graceful, director Angus MacLane confronts aging, loss, and the value of human connection in a very smart, universal way.

And all of a sudden we’re off on a far better adventure. The feeling that the film simply had to play the Toy Story hits before being unshackled is inescapable. What we’re left with is a spacefaring jaunt about a broken man learning the value of friendship and teamwork. The egotist Buzz of the past is left behind and Evans, very much in his Captain America lane, makes Buzz a sad but good hearted man who struggles with the weight of his experiences.

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Buzz’s team, voiced winningly by Keke Palmer (Hustlers), Taika Waititi (Free Guy), and Dale Soules (Orange Is the New Black), is instantly likable while robotic cat SOX (Pixar vet Peter Sohn) is the sort of instantly iconic design coup that would make Grogu nod approvingly. Ostensibly, an anti-loneliness companion for long space treks, SOX enters the pantheon of great animated supporting characters. Thanks to a droll performance from Sohn, SOX’s line readings draw big laughs. 

My four year old son fell head over heels for this movie, just complete investment. He cried, he cackled, and he spilled his raisinets at a well timed jump surprise. His excitement upon leaving the theater was palpable and I was happy to see he understood not just all the film’s major themes but also most of the science fiction nonsense that powers the plot. There’s a clarity and efficiency to the exposition rarely seen in the genre. I suspect he’ll hardly be alone as a kid who adored this movie.

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Spoilers

I think it’s important to talk about the time leap component of the film. The notion that Buzz is essentially trapped as, ahem, a man out of time while everyone in his life manages to find fleeting moments of happiness is really quite sad. The way the impart of his mission – and the life he misses – weigh down this Buzz Lightyear helps to give the character a texture in which the Toy Story movies were never interested. There’s something profoundly sad in the idea that affable Space Ranger Buzz missed out on the entire life of quite literally everyone he ever knew.

I appreciated the way Lightyear played around with the multiverse idea because it’s easy to imagine this Buzz Lightyear careening into a very dark and obsessive place without the gift of friendship. The reveal of Zurg as a darker timeline Buzz himself is really quite a dark thematic twist. As a parent, I found it rewarding that my son most wanted to talk about how “old Buzz” turned into the bad guy. I think there’s an effective universality here in the way the film explores how people can go bad with the wrong stimuli.

End Spoilers

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

On a down note, nothing about the film’s place in “canon” makes much sense. If this movie existed in 1995, it may have been impenetrable to mass audiences (it trusts the audience to very easily understand multiversal and time travel concepts that are far more mainstream in cinema today). Beyond that, at a very basic level, it’s impossible to imagine that Buzz wouldn’t have been surrounded by an array of supporting toys beyond Zurg just like the Woody’s Roundup gang in the Toy Story sequels. SOX is going to be the breakout merchandising star of the movie, and would have been in 1995 as well. There are a million other ways to quibble about the “canon” here, but the simpler answer is that this would have been a better movie if it were just about a team of astronauts and scientists trapped on an alien world. I understand the business sense that calling this Lightyear and tacking on the intellectual property probably adds a quarter of a billion dollars to the global take… but I sure do wish storytelling quality meant a little more in the calculus.

Finally, it’s been inescapable in the media landscape that bigots are very angry at this movie for having the audacity to (all too briefly) depict a loving non-white same sex couple. I am happy that this sort of pairing is front and center for my kids. Normalization helps create mass acceptance. And if you disagree, let me make it as clear as possible, we don’t want your readership or your clicks here.

Lightyear is a very good movie that could have been something truly special if it had the confidence, or perhaps bad business sense, to unshackle itself from the broader Disney IP Empire.

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Lightyear will be released in theaters on June 17, 2022.

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