June 22, 2022
Pixar movies generally fall into one of two categories. One, beautifully animated for children but imbued with depth and mature underpinnings for parents to ponder (Soul, Brave, Wall-E, Up).Or two, built around a hackneyed theme, with cartoonish dialogue and a few quips for the parents (Cars, Finding Dory).
Lightyear fits neatly into the latter category. It’s a film about teamwork and the perils of hubris.
According to its prologue, Lightyear was Andy from Toy Story’s favorite movie. Its titular hero, Buzz Lightyear, apparently grew up loving the 1980s classic Top Gun. In nearly every scene in Lightyear, Buzz (Chris Evans) tries to mimic Maverick.
He’s a brash, swashbuckling space ranger with a fervor for exploration and an aversion to sidekicks. When his superiors decide to scrap his hyper-speed flight program in lieu of a newer, high-tech option, Buzz risks being court-martialed. He defies orders and steals a jet just to prove them wrong.
While Buzz vies to be the suave, solo-flying Maverick, much to his chagrin, his daring escapades always fall short. In the first act, Buzz, in command of the colony ship, tries to flee a remote planet’s hostile, indigenous aliens. He haughtily brushes off a rookie pilot’s aid: “I’m better off just doing the job myself.” But Buzz doesn’t pull the ship up in time. His arrogance ultimately damages its hyper-speed engine, marooning everyone aboard the ship on the planet.
It’s hard to believe that this was the movie that gripped Andy’s blooming imagination in the Toy Story universe. Lightyear portrays Buzz as a conceited and mediocre pilot. He has all of Maverick’s attitude but none of his skill. It is only by learning to work with novices that he ever succeeds in anything. Hardly a template for an inspiring hero.
The only likable character in the film is Sox (Peter Sohn), a robot cat gifted to Buzz for some sort of therapy outlet. With his wry, deadpan countenance, Sox tranquilizes belligerents, hacks firewalls, and solves complex physics problems whenever the film can’t figure out how to get Buzz out of a pickle.
Reams of controversy followed Lightyear’s initial screenings. Many Muslim countries banned the movie, citing its LGBT inclusion. Ironically, Disney’s poorly devised plot does its queer characters fewer favors than the Iranian Ayatollah.
Once stranded on the planet, Buzz begins repetitively performing test flights around a nearby sun in hopes of fixing his hyper-speed engine. He soon learns that a brisk round trip for him puts years of aging on everyone else on the planet. Within a 2-minute montage of Buzz flying in circles, his lesbian best friend has aged about 90 years and is sending him messages from her deathbed. Now,the movie actually starts.
There was a time, coined as its Golden Era, when Pixar was the Beatles of animated storytelling. For more than a decade, its creative output was unrivaled by competitors. Its oeuvre included classics such as Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007).
By Pixar’s standards, Lightyear is worse than treading water. A bland story about a toy from a previous movie (which itself has spawned three sequels) is a creative low point. However, its greater sin is its underlying message: The collective is stronger than the individual; you can’t accomplish anything alone, so don’t even bother trying. Top Gun similarly echoed the value of teamwork, but it also underscored individual excellence. It gave you a hero who was patently the best at what he did and inspired you to work hard — that’s the ethic we should be instilling in the next generation.
Originally published at The Washington Examiner