Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!
It all began with a tweet. In December 2020, Pixar announced it was working on a Buzz Lightyear spinoff film, Lightyear, with Chris Evans voicing the title role. As for how Lightyear would be related to the Toy Story franchise, Evans went on Twitter to clear a few things up. But the actor’s, um, clarification had the adverse effect of making the very concept of Lightyear more confusing than ever. (“I don’t even have the words,” Evans first tweeted, which probably should’ve told him it was time to log off.)
And just to be clear, this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on— Chris Evans (@ChrisEvans) December 11, 2020
There were two ways to respond to Lightyear: either accept that Pixar has a stellar track record of turning any bizarre premise into a family-friendly crowd-pleaser, or fall down the rabbit hole to infinity and beyond. Because my brain is broken, I opted for the latter. Here’s some initial questions I had about Lightyear:
- Is Buzz Lightyear supposed to be based on a real astronaut from the Toy Story universe, or is he IP within IP?
- If Buzz Lightyear is an actual person, how does he feel about being turned into a toy? Does he get a cut of the merchandising profits?
- If Buzz Lightyear is a real human, does that mean interstellar travel exists within the world of Toy Story? Does the Emperor Zurg toy imply the existence of extraterrestrial life?
- Did Andy watch the same movie we’re going to see in a theater and then decide he wanted a Buzz Lightyear toy? How many other Toy Story toys are originally from a movie?
- If Andy did watch this movie, does this mean Lightyear was technically released in the ’90s?
- Since the Toy Story universe is entirely animated, does that mean Lightyear is a live-action movie from the perspective of someone like Andy?
- If not, are Andy and the other humans of Toy Story aware that their world is entirely animated? Is it like being trapped in the Matrix before taking the blue pill?
- If ’90s Andy is animated, wouldn’t he be freaked out watching a movie that looks more technologically advanced than he is?
- If Lightyear is a live-action movie, who is the actor playing Buzz who is already voiced by Chris Evans? Is it still Chris Evans?
- Why isn’t Tim Allen still voicing Buzz Lightyear?
- Is the director of Lightyear, Angus MacLane, also the director of the movie that takes place within the Toy Story universe, since his name appears in the credits? If so, are MacLane and everyone else in the Lightyear end credits now part of Toy Story canon?
- Why is fluid leaking from my brain?
While most of Lightyear’s target audience probably isn’t concerned about all these details, it hasn’t helped that everyone responsible for making the film twists themselves into knots trying to explain its very existence. “‘Set in the world of Toy Story’ is kind of weird,” MacLane admitted to Entertainment Weekly after the first trailer dropped in October. “In the Toy Story universe, it would be like a movie that maybe Andy would have seen, that would have made him want a Buzz Lightyear figure. … This is stand-alone. It’s the Buzz Lightyear movie. It’s that character but as the space ranger, not as the toy.”
With respect to MacLane, his answer has the same energy as someone trying to fill the word count on a school paper. But he does set the stage for who this Buzz actually is: a toy from a beloved franchise turned into a fake astronaut in a movie-within-a-movie that a kid from the first movie watched. (OK, that might not be an improvement on MacLane’s word salad.) Instead, it’s better to think about Lightyear less from the perspective of how it awkwardly fits into the Toy Story universe and more about what it means to Pixar and its parent company, Disney: a chance to wring every conceivable idea from an adored (and highly lucrative) franchise. Andy supposedly fell in love with Buzz by watching this movie, and the studio wants you to do the same—there’s even early access screenings that boast about giving audiences the full “Andy experience.” (Aside from the chance to acquire some concept art, it appears the “Andy experience” is simply … seeing the film.)
Pixar has captured the hearts of children and adults alike by evoking profound emotion with its films (revisit the opening 10 minutes of Up without a box of tissues at your peril). But it’s hard not to feel a bit cynical about Lightyear being such an explicit cash grab. If Pixar wanted to make a sci-fi adventure film, the studio didn’t have to slap Buzz Lightyear’s name on it and create a needlessly confusing origin story. Pixar is doing this because it gives the studio the best chance of reaping box office rewards after its previous three films—Soul, Luca, and Turning Red—were relegated to streaming on Disney+.
Of course, Pixar isn’t the only studio that has to strike a balance between art and commerce, and while Lightyear’s self-serious trailers made it seem like an animated version of The Right Stuff, the movie mostly delivers in the ways you’d expect. There are tear-jerking moments that bring new meaning to its title character’s famous catchphrase; there’s an adorable robot cat named Sox, who already belongs in the pantheon of hilarious Pixar sidekicks; there’s an earnest message for kids about the importance of living in the present instead of clinging to the past. The opening title card does a better job of justifying the film’s existence than the entire past year of Lightyear marketing or Chris Evans tweets: “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” (Was that so hard?!)
Aside from the usual Pixar hallmarks, Lightyear also owes a surprising debt to Christopher Nolan when it comes to getting the audience emotionally invested in the story. After getting marooned on a hostile alien planet with a colony of space travelers, Buzz undergoes a series of test flights to reach hyperspeed in order to bring everyone back home. But whenever Buzz hops in his spacecraft for a few minutes, four years elapse for everyone else, including his best friend and former Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba). Essentially, every test flight lands Buzz in the same dilemma as Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut from Interstellar visiting a planet near a black hole, with similarly heartbreaking results. And as the decades pass, everyone but Buzz has moved on with their lives—an existential dilemma the Space Ranger has to confront as his mission becomes a relic of a forgotten time.
Considering the meta nature of Lightyear being a movie within a movie universe for the sake of connecting pre-established IP, perhaps Pixar should heed the film’s advice about not getting stuck in the past. Whether he’s viewed as a popular children’s toy in Andy’s collection or a fictional astronaut traveling through the far reaches of space, there’s no denying Buzz Lightyear is one of Pixar’s most iconic creations. But if the studio wants to reach the same creative heights that brought it to infinity and beyond in the first place, then it should put Buzz back on the shelf. Even fictional astronauts starring in an origin story based on a toy from a movie that became a franchise ought to know when to hang it up for good.