Disney has made Pixar make a Marvel movie for its Star Wars pastiche character in order to capitalize on the brand recognition of a brand that does not exist.
This has all gotten a little too weird, hasn’t it?
42,000 light-years from Earth, an exploratory Star Command mission is stranded on a hostile world, a situation Capt. Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) blames himself for. Lightyear faces time dilation as he tests new hyperdrive crystals that could get them back to Earth, evolving politics as the decades pass without him and the eventual invasion of Emperor Zurg (James Brolin).
There’s a little note at the start of the movie saying that Lightyear is the live-action movie Andy Davis saw that got him hyped up for the new Buzz Lightyear action figure he received in Toy Story, an obvious placeholder sentence sifted into the final cut that I know was whipped up by some overworked intern in a meeting and never meant to be paid any mind, but even brushing against the idea of this as a movie that came out in 1995 is almost too wild to handle because it is so firmly rooted in the transparent politics of 2022 filmmaking, as well as tropes that emerged from the technical shortcuts rampant in this era. What could be a fresh and exciting space adventure with a tie-in to another film series instead tries to gaslight you into thinking you’re watching a long-awaited sequel in the vein of Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
Lightyear is the moment when Disney has fully broken the spirit of Pixar. The upstart studio that at first refused to do sequels and shied away from human animation has now made a spinoff that anthropomorphizes a toy character, a movie that is supposed to be live action within its animated world. They don’t even have a short to lead it, something I never thought I’d miss.
It’s also the moment Disney has broken me personally – watching Lightyear feels like a psychological attack. I feel like a Roomba that can’t navigate out of a corner trying to sort out all the ways this movie doesn’t makes sense. Disney has spent the past decade depending increasingly on brand recognition, and the media it sells on brand recognition, especially Star Wars media, are increasingly designed to please viewers who come for that nostalgia.
Now we have Lightyear, which is being sold on the recognition of a fictional brand and designed to please viewers who would be nostalgic for that fictional brand – and notably devoid of nostalgia for the real-world roots of that brand. Lightyear actually contradicts what little is revealed of Buzz Lightyear’s fictional backstory in the Toy Story series, which is not a problem, continuity is for suckers, but it is alarmingly off-brand that Disney isn’t pandering to those suckers here. It’s meant narrowly for people who are aware of Buzz Lightyear as a concept, but not for people who grew up with him.
Lightyear is not good. It’s got a sterile, laboratory-made element to it that pervades not only the motivations behind the movie, but everything in it. Granted, this is a computer-animated movie that was in a very real sense made in a laboratory, but where all the best cartoons in history revel in their unreality, Lightyear is trying as hard as it can to be a live-action space adventure from 2022.
Because it’s computer-animated, everything is in really clean shapes and neat lines and colors and the motion is smoothed. There’s a simulation of clutter, especially in the jungle sets, but it’s all just a little off. You can also feel it in the cast of characters when we finally reach the main body of the movie and Lightyear is leading this ragtag team of misfits, different brands of comic relief that are a little too perfectly curated to be real.
The movie’s eerie fabric is most present in the action scenes, when the camera starts zooming around like a coked-out hornet and the main characters stay completely centered in the frame, calm, calculated, in some ways as if nothing’s happening. Lightyear wants to be a Marvel movie, and action scenes that are a poor simulation of chaos is a standard pain point with those. This feels like a computer has simulated the same problem. The task is no longer to display the stunts in such a way that you can avoid actually doing the stunts, so now they’re displayed in this bizarre way that no physical camera could possibly recreate.
The strongest feeling I get watching Lightyear is that it needed to actually be made live action instead of this weird simulation of it. This movie needs humanity, real humanity that comes from getting people together on-location with physical props and costumes. I want to see a physical Star Command space suit with dirt all over it. The screwball band of misfits needs to be in the same room and seem like they’re actually interacting.
Evans, who would have the time of his life playing a live-action Lightyear, sounds bored. The Buzz Lightyear character in the Toy Story series, it’s not just that he’s a toy, his entire character arc is around realizing that he is a toy – and in three sequels, they’ve found nothing else to do with him. They all shunt him into B-plots making fun of his perception of reality in a way that has gotten pretty mean-spirited. There can’t be any connection between him and the character we’re watching in Lightyear, not even in the sense that one is based on the other. The defining characteristic is gone, and Evans is stuck playing this completely straight character before he gets his hook.
The true cosmic horror of Lightyear that I can’t wrap my head around is the legacy character – as Lightyear zooms through 62 years in 10 days of test flights at relativistic speeds, his commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) gets old and dies, and his main contact is her granddaughter, Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), who spends most of the movie moping about how she’s “supposed to be a Hawthorne.” Her arc is overcoming the insecurity is that she doesn’t live up to a character whose entire fictional biography began and ended in the past half hour.
Movie viewership over this past several years has been so centralized that we were always going to have a bit of a copycat effect, and this is the most absurdist result of that I’ve seen. Legacy grandchildren in long-awaited sequels are usually a clear death knell for a property, but in Lightyear, she is present at birth. The character representing the creator’s own insecurity about whether or not the new movie will live up to the old is now so common, so apparently expected in the upper floors at Disney, that they’ve retro-fit a history onto media that doesn’t have one so that someone can worry about living up to the media’s history.
Lightyear is also hopelessly entwined with the politics of 2022 filmmaking, especially the way Disney makes its films. This is another $200 million gamble that could have been made for $60 million or so – that’s not a number plucked out of thin air, that’s the original Toy Story’s production budget adjusted for inflation. Disney seemed to expect it to perform like Toy Story 5 might, projecting it to open at $70 million, leaving its $50.57 million second-place opening a disappointment – it’s gone on to $207 million worldwide after a month in release, a number that likely won’t get much bigger with Minions: The Rise of Gru and Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank in theaters. This is going to be a very rare financial black eye for Disney.
Part of the reason for that is a low $92.45 million take internationally, which is a troubling trend for legacy properties – they’re only legacy properties in America. China, the world’s fastest-growing movie market that Disney has tailored its movies toward for years, turned its nose up at the Star Wars sequels and hasn’t even released Lightyear because of yet another political pain point, the gays.
China will not release movies with explicitly gay characters, which is the main tension for Disney as it tries to make movies for both it and a U.S. audience demanding more gay characters. Lightyear is the studio’s 48th consecutive “movie with the first explicitly gay character” that doesn’t actually have an explicitly gay character, just a woman with a cool haircut standing behind Alisha Hawthorne for one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Disney’s patented solution that they keep going back to despite it both infuriating American audiences and not fooling Chinese censors for a second.
As with everything about Lightyear, from the core concept to the plot elements to the camerawork, it leaves you asking – why are they doing this again?