The release of the first trailer for Lightyear, the Toy Story spin-off centered on the franchise’s beloved Space Ranger, occasioned a tweet from its leading man that was received as the ramblings of a sphinx.
“This isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy,” wrote Chris Evans. “This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.”
Evans’s words do actually make sense – Lightyear the film, he wanted his followers to know, is about the character himself, and not the action figure voiced by Tim Allen in Toy Stories 1 through 4.
If the tweet reads as nonsensical, I’d say it has a lot more to do with the convoluted, creatively bankrupt concept than the actual syntax. (A film based on a fictional toy might strike as less flimsy, less immediately objectionable, than one based on Pop-Tarts or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but not by much.)
In Hollywood’s quest to turn everything it touches into IP, audiences are becoming ever more entangled in a Gordian knot’s worth of not just sequels and prequels, but spin-offs, reboots, and ‘requels’ too – and now this.
Just as well writers Jason Headley and Angus MacLane, who also direct, seem to have found a cleaner hook since Evans’s December, 2020 tweet. An opening intertitle announces Lightyear as the film that begat the action figure – that is, the film that led Andy, the owner beloved by the original Toy Story’s rag-tag toy gang, to ditch Tom Hanks’s Woody and the associated cowboy memorabilia in favor of flashier spaceman merch.
With apologies for being a buzzkill (ahem), I gotta say that I can’t imagine Lightyear inspiring any such fervor in the kiddies of today.
Not least because Headley and MacLane – after making a point of nailing down exactly where this film is supposed to sit in the Toy Story universe – utterly fail to deliver on the premise.
Though it borrows candidly from classics of interstellar travel (Star Wars; 2001: A Space Odyssey), Lightyear offers little of the goofily heroic charm that made the animated action figure so endearing.
Allen’s character’s lofty proclamations about reaching Star Command and his mission logs were funny because they were being issued by a small plastic man, oblivious to the true nature of his existence. “You are a TOOOY!” an exasperated Woody bellows at an undeterred Buzz in one of the 1995 film’s most memorable moments.
But there is no such irony in the self-serious dedication of the new – or should that be old? – Buzz. (In that sense, Captain America is probably a good choice for the role.)
When he finds himself marooned – together with his commanding officer and pal Alisha Hawthorne (Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba) and a giant spaceship’s-worth of fellow rangers – on a hostile planet with their fuel source, a “hyperspeed crystal”, destroyed , Buzz throws himself into the task of getting them all home again.
This means launching himself on a series of round trip missions in order to test out his jerry-rigged crystals (the process looks like making a multi-flavor Slurpee, why not?). Unfortunately, the wanderers of time dilation mean that each time Buzz returns, everyone else is years older, and more and more settled on the planet he wants to escape: fleeting glimpses of Alisha’s wedding, the birth of her daughter, and her 40th anniversary whiz by in a montage.
(The film’s lesson about the dangers of workaholism will surely resonate with kids everywhere.)
When the scary, Transformer-esque Zurg (voiced by James Brolin) makes his entrance and begins wreaking havoc (for reasons unknown), Buzz pivots to combating him – the hero assisted by an obligatory cutesy sidekick, the robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) , and a gaggle of cadets helmed by Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer, Hustlers). (It’s left to this crew, rounded out by Taika Waititi and Dale Soules, another Orange is the New Black alum, to handle much of what passes for laugh lines in this film.)
This conflict fizzles almost as gracelessly as it was introduced: the revelation of Zurg’s nefarious motivations fails to make sense of the arch-rivalry that characterized the relationship between the toy versions of him and Buzz.
Which brings us back to the fact that this film ultimately fails to embody the mythology it claims for itself.
In Toy Story 2, Woody discovers that he’s the product of an old TV show called Woody’s Round-Up, snippets of which suggest a riff on Howdy Doody, with a puppet Woody happily issuing his rootin’-tootin’ one-liners.
By contrast, nothing about Lightyear suggests that it could have been made and watched by Andy in 1995, except maybe the irksome animatronic cat. (His catchphrase: “beep boop beep boop”.) Nothing about Lightyear suggests that, should the boy have seen it, he would’ve become enamored with space travel. Even though the landscapes are handsomely rendered and Michael Giacchino’s score is often stirring, there’s none of the silly flash promised by the character’s neon green and purple iconography.
Perhaps there’s no better distillation of the gap between toy Buzz and ‘human’ Buzz than the way in which “To infinity, and beyond!”, a loving parody of a high camp hero’s bombast, here becomes an earnest affirmation shared by him and Alisha , signed off with a gentle touching of index fingers. The line should soar – it’s rousing and meaningless! – but Headley and MacLane insist on making it weighty. They pull it right back down to Earth, or whatever the heck planet they’re on.
Part of Woody’s task in the original Toy Story is coaxing Buzz through the existential crisis that comes with the eventual revelation of his PVC identity. “Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger!” Blurts Woody. You said it, pal.
Lightyear is in cinemas now.