“In 1995, Andy received a toy from his favorite movie. It’s that movie.
So begins “Light year,” a new take on Pixar that takes a meta approach to the animation studio’s flagship franchise. It’s not exactly a “Toy Story” prequel, but rather features the movie that inspired Buzz Lightyear toys in the first place. It’s potentially clever reverse engineering on the part of the Walt Disney Co., which, after decades of growing commercialization of its films, has reversed course. We’re not exactly through the looking glass, but we may be through the Happy Meal.
It’s honestly a gamble – 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 was curious to actually see “Rochelle, Rochelle” or “Sack Lunch”? Or those pseudo Adam Sandler films like “Mer-man” in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People”? I’ve seen enough “Home Alone” movies to almost convince myself that “Angels with Even Dirtier Souls” is a real gangster movie.
But the truth is, the appeal of all those fake movie cameos — like the ones that adorn Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — lies in their brevity. So, should “Lightyear” have been a Pixar feature or short? The answer, I think, is rather the latter.
The “Toy Story” films, once a near-perfect trilogy, already stretched to infinity and beyond with “Toy Story 4”, a sequel nine years later that was perhaps driven less by a need for narrative closure than by box office imperatives. But at the same time, Forky. Forky made it forgivable.
What’s compelling “Lightyear” is harder to say, but there’s a bland, vaguely “Airplanes” feeling here that feels like a straight-to-video spinoff. Yet unlike that “Cars” detour, “Lightyear” carries 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” have all made their way to Disney+, sometimes seemingly over the objections of Pixar’s own animators.
But “Lightyear,” helmed by “Finding Dory” co-director Angus MacLane (who directed some of the “Toy Story” shorts and specials that expanded the film series), is coming to theaters just as where summer movies once again reach the stratosphere. It’s perhaps a bit of a buzzkill to call “Lightyear” — the biggest kids’ movie to come in a while — a mission failed.
It’s a surprisingly standalone film – that opening title card is one of the only ties to “Toy Story” – in which the “real” Buzz (drawn more human and voiced by Chris Evans, replacing 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 tries to soar through the speed of light for help on Earth, something goes wrong. Each trial takes a day but, back on the distant planet, everyone has lived for years. In the blink of an eye, 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 sci-fi setting, “Lightyear” borrows from Christopher Nolan’s “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” “Interstellar,” and others. It’s a bit like Pixar has made a straightforward sci-fi movie — one with an obvious affection for the genre but little of the big-hearted splendor of “WALL-E.” You could say that “Lightyear’s” unorthodox approach allows Pixar to step outside the usual parameters of what the animation studio usually does. “Lightyear” isn’t ambitious or existential or likely to make you cry. It’s just a tasteless film, not very different from the others.
“Lightyear” picks up a bit when Buzz joins forces with a motley crew that includes Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), accident-prone Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi, doing her best to add some life comic to film) and the elderly of Dale Soules. criminal Darby Steel. Buzz’s most notable sidekick, however, is a highly intelligent robotic cat named Sox (voiced by “The Good Dinosaur” director Peter Sohn), a particularly familiar type of Disney sidekick surely designed to kick off a new merchandising opportunity. .
That may be the only circle of life at work in “Lightyear,” a dead-end wrong turn in the generally boundless Pixar universe. Buzz himself is a bit boring too. He’s a character who, since he’s not the Buzz we know, needs to prove himself as a protagonist. But with little to set him apart beyond a chin that makes Jay Leno look small, it’s enough to make you wonder what Andy saw in him in the first place. Maybe someone should have shown him “Ratatouille”.
“Lightyear,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for action/peril. Duration: 105 minutes. Two out of four stars.
Jake Coyle, The Associated Press
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