“In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”
So begins “Lightyear,” a new Pixar release that takes a meta approach to the animation studio’s flagship franchise. It isn’t a prequel to “Toy Story,” exactly, but instead presents the movie that inspired Buzz Lightyear toys in the first place. It’s a potentially clever bit of reverse engineering by the Walt Disney Co., which, after decades of growing merchandising out of its films, has reversed course. We aren’t exactly through the looking glass, but we may be through the Happy Meal.
It’s honestly a gambit — taking a fictional movie-within-a-movie and making it real — that I’ve wanted to see attempted before. Who hasn’t watched “Seinfeld” and been curious to actually see “Rochelle, Rochelle” or “Sack Lunch”? Or those pseudo Adam Sandler movies like “Mer-man” in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People”? I’ve seen the “Home Alone” movies enough to almost convince myself that “Angels With Even Filthier Souls” is a real gangster flick.
But the truth is, the appeal of all these faux-film cameos — like those that adorn Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — is predicated on their brevity. So should “Lightyear” have been a feature film or a Pixar short? The answer, I think, is very much the latter.
The “Toy Story” films, once an almost perfect trilogy, were already stretching toward infinity and beyond with “Toy Story 4,” a nine-years-later-sequel that was perhaps propelled less by a need for narrative closure than it was box-office imperatives. But at the same time, Forky. Forky made it forgivable.
What’s compelling “Lightyear” is harder to say, but there is a bland, vaguely “Planes” feeling here that smacks of a straight-to-video spinoff. Yet unlike that “Cars” detour, “Lightyear” bears the Pixar imprimatur. And, ironically, it’s the first Pixar film in more than two years to debut exclusively in theaters. During the pandemic, “Luca,” “Soul” and “Turning Red” were all routed instead to Disney+, sometimes reportedly against the objections of Pixar’s own animators.
But “Lightyear,” helmed by “Finding Dory” co-director Angus MacLane (who made some of the “Toy Story” shorts and TV specials that have expanded the film series), arrives in theaters just as summer movies are reaching the stratosphere again. So it may be a bit of a buzzkill to call “Lightyear” — the biggest kids movie to come along in a while — a failed mission.
It’s a surprisingly self-contained film — that opening title card is one of the only tethers to “Toy Story” — in which the “real” Buzz (drawn more humanlike and voiced by Chris Evans, stepping in for Tim Allen), not the toy version, is marooned on a distant planet with fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and a spaceship full of people. Every time Buzz attempts to rocket into light speed to get help back on Earth, something goes wrong. Each trial takes a day but, back on the faraway planet, everyone else has lived through years. In a blip, Alisha (the first Black LGBTQ character in a major studio animated film) gets engaged, has a baby, sees her son graduate and grows old.
With its classic science-fiction framework, “Lightyear” borrows from “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and others. It’s a little like Pixar made a straightforward sci-fi movie — one with obvious affection for the genre but little of the big-hearted splendor of “WALL-E.” It could be said that unorthodox approach to “Lightyear” allows Pixar to step outside the usual parameters of what the animation studio usually makes. “Lightyear” isn’t ambitious or existential or likely to make you cry. It’s just a flavorless movie, not much different from others.
“Lightyear” picks up a little when Buzz unites with a ragtag crew including Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), the accident-prone Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi, doing his best to add some comic life to the film) and Dale Soules’ aged criminal Darby Steel. Buzz’s most notable companion, though, is a highly intelligent robotic cat named Sox (voiced by “The Good Dinosaur” director Peter Sohn), an especially familiar kind of Disney sidekick surely designed to kick-start a new merchandising opportunity.
That may be the only circle of life at work in “Lightyear,” a dead-end wrong turn in the usually boundless Pixar universe. Buzz, himself, is a bit of a bore, too. It’s a character that, since he isn’t the Buzz we know, must prove his mettle as a protagonist. But with little to distinguish him beyond a chin that makes Jay Leno’s look petite, Buzz — like the movie itself — tries to skate by on name recognition. It’s enough to make you wonder what Andy saw in him in the first place. Maybe someone should have shown him “Ratatouille.”