Lightyear fell short of expectations, failing to win the top spot at the box office, despite featuring Buzz Lightyear, one of the most memorable animated characters ever brought to the big screen, in his first solo spin-off adventure – kind of.
Toy Story remains one of Pixar’s strongest films, and also functions as a fiendishly clever toy commercial, framing Buzz Lightyear as a must-have item; there’s a reason Buzz is still one of Disney’s top selling toys of all time. So, why did Lightyear fail to reach the stars?
Reviews have been mostly positive, but not particularly enthusiastic; Lightyear is being heralded as a solid space adventure film, and a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the passage of time. But the film’s connection to its titular character, and to Toy Storyis vague at best, and at worst, confusing.
Lightyear is a movie within a movie, supposedly the film that sparked Andy’s interest in a Buzz Lightyear toy, but the film does not satirize 90’s blockbusters, or even connect to the beloved animated spin-off, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.
The film feels like a standalone sci-fi concept, reskinned into a recognizable IP – a cynic might suspect that Disney simply wanted to extend the shelf life of one of their most popular toys, having wrung the last few drops of juice out of the Toy Story franchise.
I’d argue that Disney never understood the appeal of the character in the first place – Buzz Lightyear is an archetypal hero, a blend of generic sci-fi tropes, representing the cultural shift from dusty westerns to pulpy space operas. Most importantly, he was just a toy.
The genius of Toy Story is that Buzz slowly comes to the realization that he is not a spaceman destined to save the universe – he’s a piece of sentient plastic. It’s a brain-breaking existential crisis, one that both humbles and empowers him; Buzz is such a fascinating character because he is forced to see himself for who he truly is, transcending his delusions of grandeur to become a smaller, greater kind of hero.
In Toy Story 2, Buzz experiences another epiphany, as he sees himself replicated hundreds of times on the shelves of a store, and is again reminded of his insignificance. Buzz learns he is not special – but he is unique – he finds great meaning in Toy Story’s somewhat nihilistic world, where the good times are short and the landfill is eternal.
But there was not much growth for him in the next two films, where Woody took a bigger share of the spotlight, and Buzz was reduced to a punchline; there was nowhere left for his character to go. Hence, Buzz was reborn in Lightyearredesigned to look like a cop, blasting off on a “real” space adventure, completely missing the appeal of his character.
Pixar built its stellar reputation by telling bold, original stories that their creatives wanted to tell – they still do, as Soul spirit Turning Red sample. But Disney has a habit of bleeding its most valuable franchises dry, draining favorite characters into withered husks.
As Lightyear’s box office shows, there’s a real limit to that kind of approach; some characters have only one story to tell, and that’s fine.