Lightyear – Origin Sin

Buzz Lightyear grimaces the universe into his control (ego is his superpower). He's introduced in Toy Story reflected from within his helmet in larger-than-life confidence, which the film parodies through scale – his “hostile alien planet” is really a kid’s bedspread, overinterpreted by his AA consciousness. His monologues to a Star Command that doesn’t exist are a desperate plea for purpose. They represent a breadcrumb on the trail toward disillusionment, when he discovers that his authority figures are fiction, and his ambitions were programs all along. He watches in horror as kids on TV hold him in their little hands, demonstrating the traits he values most in himself by revealing them to be pre-determined (“Karate chop ACTION”). His arc is as critical of materialistic society and its pre-packaged identity definitions as the scene with the sunglasses in They Live. It’s as spiritually dismembering as “that” reveal in Dark City. The audience laughed at him, not because his tragedy meant nothing but because of the same scale that made his initial intensity so funny – it’s disillusionment, ages 8 and up.

This character, theoretically the basis for Pixar’s new origin film, Lightyear, does not appear in it. Despite the film's plea to be interpreted within the context of the series, the meta-text in its intro is a superficial replacement for awe (“In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie”). Questioning this context is a bigger issue than a critique of logic. This meta connection breaks Toy Story at its little plastic neck because this is a version of Buzz who proactively repeats the toy’s arc in his own way, not a version of the personality that was in the toy, as manufactured. This means that Buzz’s arc in Toy Story is now part of his programming, based on the character from this film, powered by digestible lessons about overcoming ego through acceptable paradigms of change. Pixar has managed to take their most poignant tale of free will and use the series' own meta to re-corporatize it into a marketing prophecy. In the process, Buzz's persona was discarded from the reality of Lightyear and replaced with a squishier version, somehow more plastic than the one that was literally made of it. It’s more than an unproductive "prequel" – it’s a mini version of the broken system of franchise retro-management that is now the Disney norm.

This analysis is not an overreach because Lightyear is both a meta film and one that acknowledges the meta by design. Every time one of Buzz’s daring deeds in this film is interrupted by his sass-munching squad mates, daring him to yield his personality and accept a more productive existence, the film denies its ability to meaningfully represent Buzz’s baseline (he doesn’t even have karate chop action). Even his messages to Star Command, which Woody laughed at because of what they represented in their reality, are also laughed at in this film since “no one reads them,” as they say with MCU-style sarcasm. This “snarkier than thou” approach to adjusting Buzz for some abstract relevancy quota is what makes Lightyear feel not only cynically corporate but contradictory to the film it intends to connect to, like a sucker fish intending to connect to the belly of a passing whale. Lightyear's version of developing something is just "recognizing it."

The original Buzz was a critique of corporate icons, a toy sold on a ready-made heroic personality. He only discovered a higher purpose through the process of being a toy and being played with. Remember that in Toy Story, toys represent a child’s view of the world. The original Buzz’s journey from a pre-determined icon of heroism to a complex character stood in for the arc that Andy was going on behind the scenes, as he grew out of his ideas of heroic virtue towards something more personal. Andy is never the main character of a Toy Story film, but if you added up all the personalities of all his toys, the result would essentially be Andy. They are his discoveries, and fears, and truths. They are what he is told to believe and what those beliefs become, once they’ve been played with enough. Mismanaging Buzz's personality in Lightyear is not an "injustice" to a favorite toy, or at least that's not what matters about it. It's awful because it's a tonal shift in the only arc that has ever really mattered in the Toy Story series, which is Andy's.

Rather than meaningfully adapt the starting point of that arc as the company that made Toy Story, for Lightyear Disney/Pixar took the position of the company that made the toy, who just wants to update it with new marketing as though Andy and Buzz learned to be better people not by living but by watching this Disney film. To solidify this lesson-based approach, the film blasts Buzz's arc with seven rounds of acceptability chemo until he isn’t even a version that Andy would have wanted to play with in 1995, possessing none of the traits that he valued in him, which were the same traits that the toy Buzz valued in himself. Even Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, a cartoon tie-in film to Toy Story from 2000, knew that adapting Buzz’s heroic persona to high-flying Flash Gordon adventures was the only way to capture the essential spirit that would "eventually" discover a deeper purpose in real life. That cartoon even knew that soundbites in an action figure should be soundbites from the media – despite Chris Evans' able impersonation, the film never quite recovers from lacking Tim Allen's voice, which is the voice of Buzz Lightyear not only in our reality but in the established meta of the film since that's what the toy sounds like when Andy pushes his buttons. Lightyear was built so backwardly that even casting decisions are thematic issues.

This entire concept of making Lightyear, the whole motive behind the “real take” of the toy’s story, looms monolithically over the film itself as though criticizing its filmmaking is the last thing on anyone's mind. But even beyond the meta, even after recognizing that Pixar’s animation has rendered a world of sunshine and space-dust that deserved an awesome movie to occur in it, its major watchability problem comes from the pacing that results from the writers’ distraction with that meta. They wrote a story that can barely catch a breath of clarity between sarcastic reassignments of origin symbols, which makes the film less a victory lap than an endurance test. Even when it tries to be fun, the best it can manage is to be "self-aware."

The soulless contrivances required to introduce the “things we know” about Buzz Lightyear are only outnumbered by the ways the script avoids using them. Every tick and gadget seems to warrant explanation, yet none can be satisfying since satisfaction would defeat the new lessons. In Toy Story, Buzz’s wings forced him to confront the reality that he can’t fly. The use of the wings to fly in Lightyear in one scene of forced relevance means comparatively nothing. At best, these aggressive gadget referrals are hacky ads for a new version of the toy (based on Evan's Buzz, not on the original). At worst, they serve only as another self-important plot device rendered with furious animation but regurgitated awe. Even Buzz's ship is not the one used for his box in Toy Story, the one that Andy would have recognized from the film – that ship is banished to a pre-credits reveal, yet another tidbit that sacrifices logic for a vague impression of catharsis.

Outside of squeezing devices around to make room for these endless references, the film is written as though Headley and McLane's main task was not to build something interesting but to frantically fill the gaps they were creating just as fast. Lightyear somehow has nothing but rushed scenes yet feels too long, plowing through Interstellar's major beats in an aside, pulling the entire plot of Independence Day out of its hat (helmet) in the third act, and using comedy montages to spackle the rest. Even scenes of staggering dramatic importance pass with hurried indifference, edited as though it’s all a dream that the film doesn’t accept as permanent, or wants to be able to undo later if necessary. The filler between these scattered beats consists of Buzz’s ambiguously charming companion squad, voiced by Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, and Dale Soules. Rather than inspiring laughter, the constant comedy seems more intended to ward off silence for fear it might encourage observation.

The fear is warranted since Lightyear doesn't just have a plot hole – its entire structure relies on one. The concept of the secret fuel recipe created by Buzz's robot cat, Socks (voiced by Peter Sohn, who provides the film's only memorable charm), has to hold everything else together. From the moment it's made, Buzz has to break the computer he made it on to distract the audience from the fact that if either of them could remember those four numbers, the film would have no plot. Much later in the film, after a plot reveal I won't spoil but which spoils itself, its own film, and possibly the entire idea of Buzz Lightyear in less than 30 seconds, the concept of not being able to recreate this super-fuel becomes even more important and even less likely. From that moment, every event in the film retroactively depends on it, even if it didn't before. The screenwriter's job becomes a dance of misdirection in endless attempts to provide little mini-explanations that placate the audience's most obvious questions about this ludicrous lynchpin. This writing is the dark opposite of Toy Story's grounded reflections, which relied on fewer devices than Lightyear despite every character in that film literally being a device.

The humor barely deserves mentioning in an industry crowded with films that are just as undernourished with wit or purpose (here, it’s skeletal). These characters insist on their competence to a degree that leads the film to mystifyingly advocate genetic predisposition over free will, though it's something that's little more than background noise behind the comedy drizzle. But it’s significant in that stripped of the Toy Story name and the bouncy lamp before the title screen, you would never know this was a Pixar production. Pixar's adventures always took random stuff and discovered the worldview that it might have – this has been the studio's strength from the very beginning. They featured superheroes who stood in for the role of self-worth in a society that seemed to outgrow it. They used rats to provoke discussions about the nature of art. A little robot wandered through its dreams of forgotten humanity and discovered purpose. Anthropomorphized bugs faced a scary world and taught kids to rely on their point of view to fight injustice. Googly-eyed cars struggled to find emotional meaning in a world based on performance and automation. Friendly monsters discovered that the things we fear are often those that mean the most to us. A fish tried to admit to itself that a scary world is still worth being a part of. A toy spaceman decoded the endless anxieties (and joys) of growing up. Lightyear may not be the studio’s worst film. It’s certainly not its ugliest. But it’s the very first Pixar film, ever, where the characters are even less than they appear to be.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

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