The Toy Story franchise is the spine of the Pixar universe. When Andy was first given Woody and Buzz Lightyear back in 1995, Pixar announced itself as a studio that could make CGI animated films beloved by kids and adults in equal measure. From Andy's house on 234 Elm Street, Pixar became synonymous with mixing great drama with killer jokes and sly visual wit. And who hasn’t casually dropped the phrase ‘to infinity and beyond’ into conversation?
So what’s gone so wrong with Lightyear? Pixar has done a raft of successful sequels, so it’s not that. In recent years, when fans started to fret that the studio had finally run out of great original ideas, they pulled out Soul and Turning Red. But a spin-off? It’s the hellish land after infinity and beyond.
The basic idea is solid, which only makes the execution even more disappointing. We learn that when Andy got his Lightyear toy, it was a figurine from his favourite movie – and this is that movie.
But perhaps true to form, the favourite film of a seven-year-old kid is… not that great. Pixar is meta, but surely not so meta as to purposely make a dodgy sci-fi blockbuster to fit the early ’90s kids’ movie vibe?
Lightyear, the film within a film, starts with Buzz on a mission and narrating his life story to mission control. To distinguish Toy Story Buzz from the (younger) movie Buzz, Chris Evans replaces Tim Allen as the voice. And he brings some subtle points of difference, most notably in dialing down the glee in that old ‘Infinity’ catchphrase and bringing a slight sadness to it. This Buzz is a vulnerable soul trying to rectify a mistake that has left him and his colleagues stranded on a dangerous, inhospitable planet.
Lightyear feels like that horrible moment when you broke a much-loved toy
Every minute Buzz spends trying to reach the hyper-speed necessary for escape, four years pass for those left on the planet’s surface. So as he goes through his attempts, those left behind have children, grow old and die. A lesbian relationship and gay parenthood offer nods to modernity, but there’s no real sense of delivering on that early premise: exactly why is this Andy’s favourite film of the mid-’90s? Presumably, he’s a major Interstellar stan in waiting.
It soon gets tangled up with the slew of new characters that invariably come with a prequel. And because Buzz and his first set of space ranger friends age at different rates, there’s two enervating lots of them. They’re a motley crew that includes Keke Palmer and the once funny but now tiresome schtick of Taika Waititi as the voices of his fellow Space Rangers. The one saviour is robot dog SOX (Peter Sohn), who provides some much-needed humour. Anyway, they must get together to fight the Emperor Zurg (Josh Brolin) in a Star Wars rip-off.
For Pixar, which must surely have a Woody western in mind, it’s a wake-up call. Let’s hope they’re soon back on more fertile ground, because Lightyear feels like that horrible moment when you broke a much-loved toy.
Lightyear is in cinemas worldwide Fri Jun 17.