“In 1995 Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. That’s this movie.”
This is how “Lightyear” begins a new Pixar release that takes a meta approach to the animation studio’s flagship franchise. It’s not exactly a prequel to Toy Story, but instead presents the film that primarily inspired Buzz Lightyear toys. It’s a potentially clever piece of reverse engineering by the Walt Disney Co., which, after decades of making merch from its films, has reversed course. We’re not exactly through the looking glass, but maybe through the Happy Meal.
It’s honestly a move – taking a fictional movie-within-a-movie and making it real – that I’ve wanted to see attempted before. Who hasn’t seen “Seinfeld” and been curious about “Rochelle, Rochelle” or “Sack Lunch”? Or those pseudo Adam Sandler movies like “Mer-man” in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People”? I’ve seen enough of the Home Alone movies to almost convince myself that “Angels with Dirtier Souls” is a real gangster movie.
But the truth is, the appeal of all these faux-film cameos — like the ones that adorn Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — lies in their brevity. So should Lightyear be a feature film or a Pixar short? The answer, I think, is very much the latter.
The Toy Story movies, once a near-perfect trilogy, have already stretched to infinity and beyond with Toy Story 4. a nine-year-later sequel that was perhaps driven less by the need for narrative closure than by box office imperatives. But at the same time Forky. Forky made it forgivable.
What’s compelling about “Lightyear” is harder to say, but there’s a bland, vaguely “Planes” feel here that smacks of a direct-to-video spinoff. But in contrast to this “Cars” detour, “Lightyear” carries the Pixar imprimatur. And ironically, it’s the first Pixar film to debut exclusively in theaters in more than two years. During the pandemic, “Luca,” “Soul,” and “Turning Red” have all been pushed to Disney+ instead, sometimes reportedly over objections from Pixar’s own animators.
But Lightyear, directed by Finding Dory co-director Angus MacLane (who directed some of the Toy Story shorts and TV specials that expanded the franchise), is coming to theaters just as summer movies are coming back reach the stratosphere. So it might be a bit of a buzzkill to call “Lightyear” — the biggest children’s movie in a while — a mission failed.
It’s a surprisingly self-contained film — that opening title card is one of the few ties to Toy Story — in which the “real” Buzz (more humanized and voiced by Chris Evans, filling in for Tim Allen) isn’t the toy version stranded on a distant planet with Space Ranger Izzy Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and a spaceship full of people. Every time Buzz tries to shoot at the speed of light to get help on Earth, something goes wrong. Each attempt lasts a day, but on the distant planet everyone else lived through years. Shortly thereafter, Izzy (the first black LGBTQ character in a major studio animated film) gets engaged, has a baby, watches her son graduate, and grows old.
With its classic sci-fi setting, Lightyear borrows from The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and more. It’s a bit like Pixar made a straightforward sci-fi film – one with an obvious affection for the genre but little of the big-hearted grandeur of WALL-E. You could say that Lightyear’s unorthodox approach allows Pixar to push beyond the usual parameters of what the animation studio normally does. “Lightyear” is neither ambitious nor existential nor tearful. It’s just a tasteless film, not much different from others.
“Lightyear” picks up speed as Buzz teams up with a ragtag crew including Izzy’s granddaughter (Keke Palmer), the accident-prone Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi, who does her best to breathe some weird life into the film), and Dale Soules’ old criminal Darby Stahl. However, Buzz’s most notable companion is a highly intelligent robotic cat named Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn, the director of The Good Dinosaur), a particularly well-known breed of Disney sidekick who is surely destined to kick start a new merchandising opportunity.
That’s perhaps the only circle of life at work in Lightyear, a dead end in the normally boundless Pixar universe. Buzz himself is a bit boring too. It’s a character that needs to prove himself as a protagonist since he’s not the buzz we know. But with little to distinguish him other than a chin that makes Jay Lenos look petite, Buzz – like the film itself – tries to walk past the notoriety of his name. 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 for Action/Danger by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP