The release of the first trailer for Lightyear, the Toy Story spin-off centered on the franchise’s beloved Space Ranger, sparked a tweet from the lead man who received like the roar of a sphinx†
“This is not Buzz Lightyear’s toy,” wrote Chris Evans† “This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear on which the toy is based.”
Evans’ words really make sense – Lightyear the movie, he wanted his followers to know, is about the character itself, not the action figure voiced by Tim Allen in Toy Storys 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 movie based on fictional toys may seem less flimsy, less directly objectionable than a movie based on) Pop-Tarts or Flamin’ Hot Cheetosbut not much.)
In Hollywood’s quest to turn everything it touches into IP, audiences are increasingly entangled in a Gordian knot of not just sequels and prequels, but spin-offs, reboots, and more. ‘asks’ also – and now this.
Just as well, writers Jason Headley and Angus MacLane, who also directs, seem to have found a cleaner hook since Evans’ December 2020 tweet. An opening interlude heralds Lightyear as the movie that spawned the action figure—that is, the movie that Andy, the owner loved by the original Toy Story toy gang, led Tom Hanks’ Woody and associated cowboy memorabilia to ditch in favor of flashier spaceman merchandise.
With apologies for being a buzzkill (ahem), I have to say I can’t imagine Lightyear inspiring such zeal in today’s kids.
Not least because Headley and MacLane – after making a point of pinning down exactly where this movie is supposed to sit in the Toy Story universe – absolutely fail to live up to the premise.
While it candidly borrows from classics of interstellar travel (Star Wars; 2001: A Space Odyssey), Lightyear offers little of the goofly 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 amusing because they were issued by a little plastic man, oblivious to the true nature of his existence. “You’re a TOOOY!” an exasperated Woody roars at a fearless Buzz in one of the most memorable moments from the 1995 film.
But there is no such irony in the self-serious devotion of the new – or must it be old? – Fuss. (In that sense, Captain America is probably a good choice for the role.)
When he, his commander and friend Alisha Hawthorne (Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba) and a giant spaceship of fellow rangers become stranded on a hostile planet with their fuel source, a “hyperspeed crystal”, destroyed, Buzz throws himself into the task to get them all back home.
This means he has to launch himself on a series of touring missions to test his jerry-rigged crystals (the process is like making a multi-flavored Slurpee, why not?). Unfortunately, the vagaries of time lag mean that each time Buzz returns, everyone else is years older 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. . through an assembly.
(The movie’s lesson on the dangers of workaholism is sure to resonate with kids everywhere.)
When the creepy, Transformer-esque Zurg (voiced by James Brolin) steps in and begins wreaking havoc (for reasons unknown), Buzz turns to fight him – the hero assisted by an obligatory cutesy sidekick, the robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn), and a bunch of cadets headed by Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer, Hustlers† (It’s left to this crew, plus 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 gracefully as it was introduced: The revelation of Zurg’s nefarious motivations makes no sense to the arch-rival that characterized the relationship between the toy versions of him and Buzz.
Which brings us back to the fact that this movie ultimately fails to embody the mythology it claims for itself.
In Toy Story 2, Woody discovers that he is the product of an old TV show called Woody’s Round-Up, snippets of which suggest a riff on Howdy Doody, with a doll Woody gleefully putting out his rootin’ toootin’ one-liners.
By contrast, nothing about Lightyear suggests that it could have been created and viewed by Andy in 1995, except perhaps the pesky animatronic cat. (His catchphrase: “beep boop beep boop”.) Nothing about Lightyear suggests that if the boy had seen it, he would have become enamored with space travel. While the landscapes are beautifully rendered and Michael Giacchino’s score is often rousing, there’s none of the silly flashes promised by the character’s neon green and purple iconography.
Perhaps there is no better distillation of the gulf between toy Buzz and ‘human’ Buzz than the way that “To infinity, and beyond!”, a loving parody of the bombast of a high camp hero, becomes a heartfelt affirmation here by him and Alisha is shared, silhouetted with a soft touch of index fingers. The line should rise – it’s exciting and pointless! — but Headley and MacLane insist on making it tough. They’re pulling it back to Earth, or whatever planet they are.
Part of Woody’s job in the original Toy Story is to guide Buzz through the existential crisis associated with the eventual reveal of his PVC identity. “Being a toy is much better than being a Space Ranger!” Woody blurts out. You said it, friend.
Lightyear is now in cinemas.
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