LIGHTYEAR: Pixar’s Latest Explores a Beloved Character in a New Context

Right off the bat, Pixar’s newest, Lightyear, throws up a quick opening title that disarms any wayward speculation and explains simply its place in the world of Toy Story: the film you’re about to watch is Andy’s childhood favorite movie, from whence came his love for a character named Buzz Lightyear.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his colleagues are space rangers, Star Trek-like explorers navigating the cosmos in a massive ship that houses a massive crew. While making a quick escape from a remote and hostile planet, Buzz makes a fateful miscalculation, not only failing to pilot them offworld, but destroying their means of hyperspace travel in the process, leaving the entire crew and population marooned.

This failure sets into motion what will become Buzz’s motivation as well as his greatest internal struggle.

While he’s devastated by his mistake, Buzz’s commander and closest friend, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), encourages him to overcome his despair and complete the mission, by rebuilding the crystal which makes hyperspace travel possible.

What this brings about is the film’s most interesting yet emotionally devastating theme, an idea which was similarly explored in Interstellar but expanded here: each time Buzz test-pilots a new attempt, a time dilation phenomenon means that upon his return, he finds his colleagues and community have aged some years, though in his time only a few minutes have passed. Meanwhile, the colony adjusts to life on their new planet even as Buzz strives to complete his mission, with each fateful trip bringing him a greater sense of compounding failure and urgency, and making him more distanced from his people and their memory of him.

It’s only some decades into future that a new threat arises in the form of the mysterious Zurg (James Brolin) and his robot minions.

In a world he barely recognizes anymore, and with both the stakes and the situation changed, Buzz encounters a few misfit rebels that, along with hilarious robot companion cat Sox (Peter Sohn), will become his new team: Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), accident-prone Mo (Taika Waititi), and elderly convict Darby (Dale Soules).

Lightyear’s narrative identity as an adventure movie from the 90s makes it a bit impervious criticisms of certain tropes. For example, the Zurg robots are all centrally connected to a mothership, so Buzz and friends can potentially deactivate or confuse the entire army by attacking their source. This is a silly and definitely overused plot cheat, but at the same time, definitely in line with 90s sensibilities. We’ve seen this in the major hits of the era, like Independence Day and The Phantom Menace (and even more recently, and absurdly, in The Avengers).

Another weird issue I had trouble justifying is that even from the very beginning, the marooned crew’s colony seems so impeccably manufactured, not a hardscrabble collection of shacks made with scraps or repurposed spaceship parts, but purposefully constructed, glistening, futuristic buildings with apparently every possible technical resource and building material… except for, you know, a spare hyperspace crystal. Maybe the purpose of the ship was to build new colonies? Seems the only reasonable explanation.

But while some scientific or plot points definitely feel a little off, the emotional throughline of the story not only rings true but weighs surprisingly heavily. After his failures, Buzz is a character plagued by doubt and uncertainty, but also more tragically a man out of time. Not only marooned on the planet, but personally isolated in a place where life has literally passed him by. That makes him a poor team player and unable to trust or appreciate his new team, preferring to go it alone — it’s in considering others around him that Buzz will find success in his mission.

For older viewers, the existential themes of life and aging will weigh heavily. For younger viewers, there are some serious lessons here about friendship, teamwork, acceptance, and perseverance in addition to the space-faring adventure.

— A/V Out.

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