The problem with Lightyear is that its premise alone is simple and yet overly confusing. It’s the story of the character who inspired the toy who first introduced real-life audiences to the character, something which is far too meta to be able to properly explain to the younger members of its target audience. Trying too hard to be clever in its concept was one of the film’s most obvious hurdle, though not the biggest. The biggest was its place within the Toy Story sub-franchise, which itself exists as far of the Pixar universe.
As the Toy Story movies are among the most beloved family films ever made, making a spin-off/meta-prequel was a bold choice. It’s a choice that makes sense, certainly – Buzz Lightyear’s backstory has been hinted at and explored somewhat before, and the sci-fi nature of the character makes that an interesting prospect – but it also comes with an inherent risk: either please the Toy Story fans or face their wrath. Given that many of these fans are now adults, and therefore not entirely in the market for family-focused entertainment, presented Lightyear with a very difficult line to walk.
From the very first scene, Lightyear is packed with references to other sci-fi franchises that merge into a broadly believable movie-within-a-movie. In this, Lightyear manages to get away with borrowing ideas from Star Trek or Starship Troopers, largely because it doesn’t matter – this isn’t a REAL movie, it’s a fake movie that exists within an already-animated world. This means that what might have been considered derivative feels like meta-homage, and that allows it to pass as genuine world-building (as opposed to plagiarism).
Lightyear‘s story ultimately hinges on Buzz making a major mistake in the film’s opening scene. Obsessed with correcting his mistake, he encounters an unexpected situation which ultimately leads to him opening his mind and understanding that letting go of his ego is more important than living his life hung up on one mistake. It makes for a nice, wholesome message for the younger members of the audience, and also gives Lightyear a solid emotional throughline that helps its eponymous spaceman feel three-dimensional.
Lightyear‘s realistic style of animation helps it feel separate from Toy Story, which goes in its favor. That degree of separation visually distinguishes Lightyear from the other Pixar films on a subconscious level, and in that sense, it’s easy enough to put aside any Toy Story nostalgia and just enjoy Lightyear for what it is. It doesn’t make extensive use of meta humor or references to Toy Story (or other Pixar films), which is actually a good way of establishing it as a spin-off: it’s not on equal footing because it wasn’t intended to be. That helps play down potential comparisons, which were always doomed to be unfavorable due to Toy Story‘s massive lasting popularity.
In places, Lightyear‘s story does feel a little padded, and its run-time a little bloated. Jumping from one problem to the next and having the sequence of obstacles laid out so plainly feels unintelligent, and that hurts Lightyear‘s overall quality somewhat. It’s narrative problems don’t end there, though: the film’s big twist involves time travel and a potential paradox that is at once too confusing for the younger members of its audience and too flimsy story-wise to properly hold up under scrutiny from serious sci-fi fans. Therein lies Lightyear‘s biggest problem: just who is this film really for?
Though it seems that Lightyear is a little confused about who its target audience really is, it still succeeds in telling an engaging and emotional story and it looks good in the execution. Its style of animation is genuinely beautiful, and its characters are written well in as much as Lightyear delivers numerous moments of genuine comedy. That’s where it does have something for the whole family: Lightyear is able to continue the Pixar trend of subtly including a few jokes specifically for the older members of its audience while still delivering family-friendly entertainment, and its aesthetic can be enjoyed by everyone.
When considered separately from the Toy Story movies, Lightyear is a generally fun and well-made sci-fi film with a sound message behind it. Its status as a (sort of) spin-off means that its been subjected to unfavorable comparisons, and many criticisms of the film simply aren’t entirely fair. Though Lightyear does come with a handful of issues, they aren’t so glaring as to take away from the overall quality of the film. There’s a lot to love about Lightyear, especially when watching it unburdened by the mindless hero-worship that much of its adult audience practices for Pixar.
Summary: A beautifully-animated love letter to science fiction that delivers a slightly jumbled story with an important message, Lightyear delivers a different experience to what many were expecting, but one that’s still every bit as action-packed and enjoyable as it needed to be.
Highlights: Chris Evans’ Buzz gives a different feel to the Buzz Lightyear of the Toy Story movies, and that helped Lightyear feel “inspired by” rather than “based on” – something which I personally felt added to its charm.