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Lightyear is a good movie — and an even better IP grab

Lightyear will makes lots of money, and sell even more toys.

Buzz Lightyear in Lightyear
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The running joke about Disney-Pixar movies is how well they imbue feelings into objects and lifeforms that don’t often clearly display them. Finding Nemo is about how fish have feelings. Ratatouille is about how rats have feelings. Cars is about how automobiles have feelings. Even Pixar’s logo, a little anthropomorphized lamp, seems to have feelings.

Similarly then, Lightyear is about how white men have feelings.

Lightyear centers on Buzz Lightyear. You likely know Buzz as a starring character in the vaunted, 27-year-old Toy Story franchise about a boy named Andy and his secretly sentient batch of action figures, dolls, and playthings. However, Lightyear is not a continuing solo adventure of that tiny plastic hero (who was voiced by Tim Allen). According to Disney and Pixar lore, Lightyear (2022) is the actual 1995 sci-fi flick that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toys in Andy’s universe. Andy saw Lightyear and wanted the action figure, which his mother purchased for him in the original Toy Story.

Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies is simply a toy representation of this original, fictional Buzz Lightyear (who is voiced by Chris Evans). Despite their differences, a shared idea of both Buzzes Lightyear — daring, stubborn, strong — is understood by Andy and by us. It’s a pretty high concept for a children’s movie.

Lightyear itself is a sweet musing on the value of friendship, an origin story that gives the titular character a sense of purpose, and a zippy ride through an often-gorgeous cosmic world. There’s also a hilarious robot cat named Sox; I am frightened by my own affection toward Sox. All in all, Lightyear is easily in the top half of Disney and Pixar’s filmography. It’s a charming and, at times, acutely funny space adventure.

Yet, there’s something beneath the surface that compromises Disney and Pixar’s proficient storytelling. It’s the idea that Lightyear exists not to just give us a free-standing movie about this space ranger’s feelings, but rather to take advantage of Disney’s very lucrative intellectual property. For a character whose famous words are “to infinity and beyond,” Lightyear feels predictable, content to play within Disney’s plum boundaries rather than push Disney and Pixar into a thrilling future.

If you think about Lightyear’s existence too much, your brain may start to itch with questions.

Lightyear is animated the way Andy from Toy Story is animated, so does Andy perceive Lightyear as an animated movie, or is it live-action? Can Andy, who is 6 years old at the start of the first Toy Story, even understand what the movie is about? And how does Lightyear even exist in our own universe, 27 years after its debut? How did it get here? And why is it here?

Like a faceless god, the movie does not give any concrete answers to those queries. Instead, it gives us a story about failure (kind of) and friendship.

This Buzz Lightyear, along with his bestie, space ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), is part of a crew responsible for exploring an unexplored planet. They quickly discover this uncharted world is a hostile one, full of giant bugs and strangling vines, which is made even more complicated when some decisive action from Buzz leaves the entire crew of their turnip-shaped spacecraft stranded there indefinitely.

Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in Lightyear

Buzz is intent on righting his wrong, trying again and again to travel back home by hyperspeed — the velocity needed to get the entire crew to jump through space. He gets closer with every attempt, but still faces the nagging problem of the unbreakable relationship between time and space. Each of Buzz’s trips are just minutes for him, but they’re four years for his marooned friends, all of whom are aging normally. Buzz doesn’t see a problem with this because he sees sacrifice as virtuous (it’s one of the qualities that makes him similar to Chris Evans’s other major Disney character, Captain America). This is, in fact, the Buzz Lightyear we know and love — one who is brave and loyal, and doesn’t always have the best ideas.

There’s a question implicit in the higher-budget, better-cast, more winking IP adaptations. You can feel it in The Lego Movie, in many of Disney+’s TV series, in the stills for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie film. Sure, it seems to say, this is a project based on a familiar intellectual property, made to almost-surgically extract dollars from the wallets of longtime fans … but can’t it still be creative? Isn’t it still fun?

Lightyear ratchets that up yet another notch. The whole premise of Lightyear is that the Buzz Lightyear action figures in Toy Story were actually just promotions for this movie; that this film is not just the IP we know and love but something more authentic. Lightyear is, according to Disney-Pixar’s retrofitted storyline, the actual real-deal story. And in a creative landscape devoted to ransacking the past, isn’t this a pretty clever idea?

This is slightly complicated by a sensibility in Lightyear that, as an audience, we’re smart enough to understand the way money-grabs work. It’s hard to take Disney’s smirking critique about consumerism too seriously because Disney is the force that it pretends to laugh at.

The very many movies in the Toy Story franchise are about how these cookie-cutter toys actually are individuals with human feelings that aren’t disposable. This nifty caveat allows for new Lightyear merchandise and Toy Story toys, plushies, tents, and costumes to exist side by side in Disney’s stores.

Lightyear is very much mining existing nostalgia and brand name to pad its box office haul. Depending on its financial success, there may be several more Lightyear movies in the future. The ability to keep churning out Buzz Lightyear content is especially convenient for Disney since 2019’s Toy Story 4 was supposed to be the end of the Toy Story movies.

But the funny thing is: There’s plenty in Lightyear that’s good enough to stand on its own. It didn’t need to be about Buzz Lightyear. “Brave and loyal without the best ideas” could apply to lots of characters. It’s Buzz’s friendships that make this movie.

First, with Alisha. While Buzz reacts to tragedy by trying to force correction, Alisha adapts. She leads the rest of the crew in creating a home for themselves on this new planet: constructing buildings and living spaces, building labs to cultivate resources and sustenance, and learning to defend against the planet’s very large bugs. Scientists and architects and engineers thrive.

Alisha also starts her own life.

She begins to date a fellow crew member, which blooms into romance. As the years tick by, Alisha and her partner have kids and their kids have kids. Buzz, who returns as often as a leap year, misses out on so much of her life.

Alisha doesn’t resent him. She knows her best friend needs to try to save his crew — even if they might not need saving, given how well they’ve adapted. She understands that Buzz will keep charging into space four years at a time, so she gives him a robot cat named Sox (Peter Sohn) to keep him company.

This is Buzz Lightyear and his new crew. Notice Sox the robot cat (front). He is the best part of this movie.

Eventually, Buzz’s final space run is successful and he has the solution to get everyone home! But unfortunately Buzz returns 22 years into the future, and his adopted planet is now under siege from a robot threat. Buzz and Sox are the colony’s best hope, but also find themselves responsible for Alisha’s sunny, but extremely green granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), and her companions, the cowardly Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and octogenarian ex-con Darby Steel (Dale Soules). It’s time for the lessons of friendship, round two.

Izzy, her ragtag crew, and Buzz inevitably teach each other about heroism and life — the kind of lessons that Pixar is so adept at telling. These emotional beats are hit so precisely, Pixar should think about charging its competitors for the clinic. Buzz will grow a heart. Izzy will learn more about her grandmother. Sox will learn to love despite his android circuitry.

Lightyear’s conclusion telegraphs another movie: Buzz, Izzy, Sox, and all the friends they made are strapped in and prepared to fly into hyperspeed. And while I’m sure it’ll be a great time, I’m just a little more hesitant about joining along.

The appeal of Buzz Lightyear — the toy and now the astronaut — has been that the character dares to dream despite an entire world telling him it isn’t practical. His existence is supposed to be a testament to endless possibility, and his adherence to it is so stubborn that it borders on frustrating. Lightyear gives us a fleeting glimpse into that, but this good-enough movie isn’t the slightest bit concerned with the unknown. There’s no thought to mapping out a future for the character that feels the slightest bit surprising or inventive, especially compared to the places that the original Toy Story took him.

The box office might go to infinity, but we’ll never get anything beyond the limits of intellectual property.

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