It has been over 27 years since the release of Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) – a groundbreaking 3D animated film that dethroned the established powers at the time (Disney) by proving that the mouse wasn’t the only player that could conquer the animated film genre. Within no time at all, Pixar Animation Studios released multiple smash hit films that established memorable characters, building up valuable properties that would go on to become instantly recognizable American classics. But a lot has happened since the beginning of this journey – Toy Story got three fantastic sequels, we saw the rise and fall of fidget spinners, and Pixar got purchased by the very studio it had been competing against. So then, it begs the question – after all these years, where does Pixar stand with the franchise that started it all for them and is Lightyear really a proper Pixar film?
I start this review with these egregiously loaded questions because I, of course, already know how I feel about this film as a whole. My summarized view? Lightyear contains all the technical elements that grant it Pixar quality, but none of the core emotional threads that make it a Pixar film; I’ll go onto explaining why that is a little later on. But before all that, let me preface this by saying that Lightyear is undoubtedly an impressive film on a technical level and it will certainly entertain most kids that see it, however, there remains a major problem with this film; being that it feels distinctly like a Disney film hiding under the banner of Pixar.
First and foremost, like many Pixar films, Lightyear gets a little complicated with its story, at least more advanced than your typical Disney musical; however, in this particular case it really challenges its child audience with a surprising amount of scientific jargon. On a normal day I would be ecstatic to see a kids film explore science fiction concepts and have characters stand there and attempt to explain it to the audience – but with Lightyear it scrambles the plot more than it does serve it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always admirable to see a kids film tackle complex concepts, but complicated stories are not the trademark of Pixar, never were; emotion is. In fact, Pixar is so renowned for emotion they even made a movie about it – Inside Out (2015).
In truth, Lightyear contained such little emotion that it made me suspicious as to whether this film was even overseen by any significant name at Pixar Animation Studios – and to my surprise, official credits indicate it was not. In fact, this film appears to be quite separate from Pixar’s typical collaborative workflow that involves an overlap of past producers, writers, and directors. All Pixar’s films at least contain a writer, producer, or director from a previous Pixar project (oftentimes being Pete Docter or Andrew Stanton) – however Lightyear seems to be a rare exception here, it contains distance from Pixar’s talent and core A-Team. And frankly, deep down in my gut, it doesn’t really feel like a film by them either. It feels out of place, much like this film within the Toy Story franchise itself. I would not be remotely shocked if Pixar themselves did not want to be assigned this film by their parent company Disney. If official credits are anything to go by, it seems Pixar were largely hands off from Lightyear‘s narrative scope and it shows.
Lightyear feels like a nutritionally and emotionally deficient Disney Animated film using a few of Pixar’s narrative tactics to convince us that it’s the real thing, that we’re getting “genuine Pixar magic” – but all of this deception quickly wears off whenever the film attempts to handle its emotional scenes. Where you’d usually expect melancholy, warmth, or bittersweetness – instead you feel painfully bored and withdrawn. Lightyear ultimately has no stamina or motivation to draw you in or keep you invested in its characters and what’s worse, it feels as though it cannot articulate what message it even wants to provide by the films close.
Even despite Chris Evans best efforts to add some characterization to Buzz Lightyear’s muted personality, it is all mostly in vain; as from the very beginning, the audience are not given any real reason to root for Buzz or his desires. He’s a lonely character that doesn’t seem to have a discernible personality; unlike Tim Allen’s rendition of the character, one that is practically bursting at the seams with character. All the difference here lies in writing.
Lightyear is a galactic disappointment. I am not convinced the true Pixar team was involved with this property. And if they weren’t, I wouldn’t blame them for keeping their distance. This film did not need to happen, it adds nothing to the Toy Story franchise and is so vastly different from the Buzz we all know and love that it renders any exploration of this character moot.