For the last seven years, one of the most popular critical analyses of Pixar Animation Studios movies has come from a Tumblr meme. Granted, it’s an insightful meme. The idea that Pixar movies all boil down to “What if [random object] had feelings?” does hold water, and given how much the studio built its name on the idea of evoking profound, powerful adult emotions in animated movies, it’s an understandable lens for viewing Pixar work.
But the studio’s new science fiction movie Lightyear suggests another way of looking at Pixar that’s a little less simple, but just as relevant. Arguably, Pixar’s strongest movies are about people (or toys, rats, robots, anthropomorphized emotions, etc.) figuring out how to accept who they are and how to live with each other. Lightyear forges new ground for Pixar with an ambitious story built around a new alien world and a new human society, focusing on how one man deals with his own shortcomings and losses over the course of more than half a century of lost time. But at heart, it links back to that core Pixar concept about opening up to other people as a first step toward finding a comfortable place in the world. That should be a resonant theme — certainly past Pixar movies, from Inside Out to Up to Coco to the original Toy Story, have drawn powerful narratives from the same message. But Lightyear takes such a disjointed, surface-level approach to the idea that it doesn’t land as powerfully as it should.
Lightyear has a slightly complicated place in Pixar’s franchise thinking. It’s meant to be a fictional artifact from the Toy Story world: the favorite sci-fi movie of Toy Story’s central human character, Andy. Toy Story’s toy version of Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) is a piece of merch from the Lightyear movie, where Buzz is a human astronaut (voiced by the MCU’s Captain America, Chris Evans), part of an elite team of Space Rangers. The bits and pieces of Lightyear’s arc implied throughout the Toy Story movies — like Buzz’s various pull-string catchphrases and the existence of his big purple robot enemy Zurg — were all elements Finding Dory co-director Angus MacLane and his co-writer Jason Headley (Onward) had to deal with in plotting Lightyear. (MacLane told Polygon in an interview that they ignored the previous Toy Story animated spinoff, 2000’s film and TV series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.)
But those connections aside, Lightyear is meant to stand entirely on its own as an adult science fiction story rather than a movie primarily aimed at 6-year-olds like Andy. Which certainly explains some of its bigger ideas. As the film opens, Buzz is part of a human mission into deep space, aboard a bulbous, turnip-shaped ship full of cryogenically frozen explorers. When the ship is diverted to explore life signs on a planet en route to their final destination, Buzz and his commanding officer Alisha (Uzo Aduba) are thawed out to investigate. The planet proves dangerous, and Buzz tries to pilot the ship to safety, but he miscalculates, damaging the fuel crystal that lets the ship enter hyperspace and leaving it stranded in hostile territory.
Obsessed with fixing his error, Buzz takes on a series of experimental missions to space to test new fuel crystals. But because he approaches the speed of light in those missions, time passes more slowly for him than for the colonists he left behind. After every mission, most of which blur by in a quick montage, he returns to find Alisha older — first married to a woman she met while he was gone, then with young children, then adult children, and so forth. The colonists move on as well, settling in on their new planet and adapting to it, until they finally decide there’s no point in devoting resources to Buzz’s ongoing mission.
That’s a lot to take in as just the scene-setting for the actual action of the film. Too much of it whips by as if there are no questions to be asked and nothing worth mentioning about the ship’s original mission or the society it came from, the time that passes between Buzz’s missions, or whether anyone starts questioning their worth before the hammer finally drops on them. There’s nothing in that setup about how Buzz lives from one day to the next when he’s on the planet, or whether Alisha ever tries to talk him out of his obsessive space jaunts. It’s all presented as the basic buy-in for the rest of the movie, which deals with Buzz’s refusal to accept the future he’s suddenly found himself in, and his struggle to let go of the past.
As a Flash Gordon-style space adventure packed with fast-moving alien creepy-crawlies, snappy banter, and big explosive action, Lightyear is perfectly enjoyable. There’s a lot of funny business about Buzz narrating his actions as if he’s the hero in a space serial, and a strange, silly scene about the sandwiches of the future. It’s no wonder all this would appeal to Andy and his generation, who likely see it much like 6-year-olds in our world might: as an exciting rush through a world packed with killer robots, icky monster-bugs, and cool laser swords.
But Lightyear is so clearly calibrated to be something more: a thoughtful meditation on the passage of time. Its biggest ideas all point to the need to connect with people and live in the present rather than the past. It’s a warning about all the things we might miss if we fixate on past mistakes instead of letting them go. And on that level, the film never hits as hard as it’s meant to.
In part, that’s because the script spends too much time explaining those themes. In part, it’s because there’s so much other business getting in the way. A robot cat named Sox, given to Buzz as a therapeutic tool to help him adapt to his time skips (and voiced by The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn), serves up plenty of gleeful visual and verbal jokes, but never serves his primary purpose. Buzz’s new allies Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi), and Darby (Dale Soules) each get micro-arcs of their own, but they’re largely underdeveloped characters who mostly exist to remind Buzz that he needs to learn the value of teamwork — a moral lesson that crops up so often in kids’ movies that it’s hard to see it as an adult value here.
The way that arc plays out is particularly familiar. In the setup sequence, Buzz repeatedly refuses to accept a rookie on his mission with Alisha. He insists that he works alone and doesn’t need help or input from others. He’s echoing another big-chinned hero who has to learn the value of teamwork: Mr. Incredible, whose similar rejection of a rookie sidekick in the opening sequence of Pixar’s The Incredibles drives the entire plot of that movie.
But Lightyear doesn’t have the same narrative neatness or force. Buzz continues to echo his “I’ve got this, I don’t need help” line as he’s making his big mistake, but there’s no real evidence that teamwork could have solved the problem, or that the rookie he’s shoving aside had anything to offer. His error stems more from overconfidence in his own abilities, and not listening to the ship’s computerized autopilot. There’s only a slight disjunction between “accept other people’s help” and “listen to a robot’s calculations,” but it’s still a fairly serious one that highlights the little ways Lightyear doesn’t entirely connect its emotional dots. When Zurg finally emerges — and unlike so many recent Pixar movies, Lightyear is absolutely a story with an actual old-school villain — there’s a thematic connection to the film’s morals there as well, but one that doesn’t fully make sense within the world MacLane and Headley have laid out.
None of this keeps Lightyear from being a satisfying experience in any given scene, as Buzz and his various teammates outfight aliens and out-think robots, all on the road to the inevitable moment where Buzz finds a way to accept his life and what he’s made of it. The problem is in the ways the pieces all add up into something that never digs as deeply into these characters as it needs to. The Pixar craft is on full display, as MacLane and his team fill the screen with a polished, immersive world full of emotive, likable characters. (Notably, many of them are people of color in roles that don’t revolve around their racial heritage — a welcome reflection of Pixar’s ongoing steps forward in on-screen representation.)
But they’re up against so many past Pixar successes that mine similar emotions and ideas. They all have different constructions, but most of them have more power, in part because they bring more passion to bear. So many of the best Pixar movies are about characters struggling to fulfill one dream or another, but Lightyear makes it clear early on that its hero’s dream is unworthy and misguided, making it harder for viewers to fully engage with his battle to make it happen. (Headley’s Onward takes a similar tack in its climax, but at least lets the audience root for the heroes throughout the rest of the story.)
And that dream might have stronger roots if Lightyear spent a little more time on establishing about who Buzz was in the world he wants to get back to. It’s clear what he’s lost, but not what he values: It’s clear who he is, but not who he wants to be. Certainly viewers will fill in those blanks themselves based on what they value, but that rush to put all the narrative pieces in place leaves too many of the details in viewers’ hands. Seen through that enduring Tumblr lens, Lightyear could be summed up as: “What if people wracked with guilt and regret had feelings?” But seen as another Pixar film about acceptance and connection, it feels like a less heartfelt, more calculated echo of some of the studio’s more personal projects. It’s a familiar message, in a pleasantly shiny but visibly flawed new shell.
Lightyear debuts in theaters on June 17.