Dr. Mike ~ UL Communications Studies Professor
Recently I watched this summer’s Pixar blockbuster that wasn’t a blockbuster, Lightyear. I found myself enjoying a film on a streaming platform that a few months earlier just did not generate much excitement in the theaters. I started to wonder, would Lightyear be a much stronger film if it wasn’t about Buzz Lightyear? And if so, then why was Buzz Lightyear in Lightyear?
Lightyear rolls out as a strange subspecies of prequel. Offering itself up as a curious kind of origin story, the film does not explore Buzz Lightyear’s life before he met Woody and the rest of the Toy Story gang. After all, how could it? Buzz’s realization that he is a toy is at the comedic heart of the original Toy Story (1995). We can’t have Buzz learn that he is a toy only to somehow have him forget that he is a toy to then learn he is a toy again later.
While we know that there are hundreds of Buzz Lightyear toys out there in the Toy Story universe, we also cannot follow a different Buzz because we know that the “real” Buzz Lightyear is the one owned by the young boy Andy. We may have learned to accept that Buzz moved on to be Bonnie’s toy later, but Buzz’s individuality, his essence as a character, comes from Andy’s name scrawled on the bottom of his boot.
Leaving aside that paradoxically inspiring yet somehow also soul-crushing existential theory about identity, we must consider that any attempt to expand Buzz Lightyear’s story backwards in time cannot comfortably work within the continuity established by Toy Story.
The opening moments of Lightyear try to escape this tangle by establishing that this new film is, in fact, the movie that created Andy’s fan excitement for the character. With this twist, this newest film escaped the narrative trap and shed the weight of its continuity. As a bonus, this was also a tactic that worked before. Back in 2000, Disney produced a traditionally animated cartoon series called Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. The series ran for 62 episodes. It opened with a segment that suggested the Toy Story gang were watching Buzz’s old cartoon show.
That continuity sleight-of-hand trickery did not work. According to Box Office Mojo, Lightyear made $226 million worldwide. While that’s a lot of money to the average person, it’s a big disappointment for a Pixar film.
It is tempting to suggest that the problem with Lightyear is that it is a soulless Disney cash-grab. One can say that about any Disney film though. The Mouse is doing it all for the money after all. And Lightyear is actually an amusing film. Not the greatest kid’s movie ever, but certainly not the worst. The film has a fun set of characters and an intriguingly complex plot that centers on Buzz’s reinterpretation of heroism.
It is also tempting to blame it all on voice casting and claim that people just wanted to hear Tim Allen. Yet Chris Evans does great voice work here, giving Buzz a nuance that the film’s theme requires. Sure, Allen could have done that. Eventually we all have to accept that our animated characters are going to get different voices, just as we’ve had to learn to deal with say different Batmen or James Bonds.
Thus, in a strange way, Buzz Lightyear gets in the way of Lightyear. If this movie was based on a new character, I believe some audiences would have enjoyed it more. However, if it was based on a new character, the movie probably would not have been made in the first place.