Pixar’s ‘Lightyear’ is disappointing, cliché-driven, by-the-numbers multiplex mulch that grinds against the studio’s storytelling legacy

Destination Dullsville: Buzz takes flight in Pixar’s ‘Toy Story’ spin-off ‘Lightyear’.

LIGHTYEAR ** (105 minutes) PG
Underwhelming to an almost cosmic degree, Lightyear is Pixar’s pedestrian backstory to the Buzz Lightyear character the world fell in love with thanks to the brilliant Toy Story trilogy (and the so-so Toy Story 4).

A clunky story ridden with time-travel clichés, the film unspools as the kind of unengaging, by-the-numbers franchise fodder we’ve long been used to – and which Pixar was supposed to be above, having given us a string of animation classics such as Finding Nemo, WALL-E, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Up and The Incredibles.

The premise for the film is admittedly pretty cool.

Explained in the opening captions, Lightyear is the movie Andy, the boy from the original Toy Story, saw in 1995 that made him fall in love with the Buzz Lightyear character.

So Buzz being a piece of movie merchandise is a revisionist backstory; in Toy Story 1, 2 and 3 Buzz was just a toy.

OK, nothing wrong with that. As loyal fans of the universally beloved 27-year old franchise we put our faith in the filmmakers and go with it.

Alas, what is served up in Lightyear is a largely unexciting adventure where much of the action involves running about and shooting at things.

As for being a Space Ranger, Buzz spends an awful lot of time on the ground, running about in sheds and down spaceship corridors, shooting at things. As it turns out, Lightyearisn’t really much of a space picture.

The story set-up is awkward as heck.

Thanks to a piloting blunder, Buzz maroons a giant transport with thousands of people aboard on a remote planet. The ship’s hyperdrive is toast, so a new one must be developed to get everybody home.

Inexplicably, Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans), is given the task of doing the orbital test flights necessary for this, his incompetence as a pilot brushed away with recitations of a motto about how the mission must be completed.

Thing is, each time Buzz does a test flight he jumps forward in time several years, returning to the marooned colony with everybody getting ever older.

It’s weak as water, an irritatingly stupid story point. Why would the colony agree to a testing process that might take an indeterminate number of years? Don’t they want to get off the planet and back home as quickly as possible?

On top of that are all these clichés to do with time travel. Now the most over-used narrative gimmick in movies today, there’s nothing fresh or funny in how it is deployed in Lightyear, which is infused with all the tropes about competing timelines, alternate realities and so forth. It confirms how time travel has become the default setting for lazy storytelling.

Somebody at Pixar should have sent the first draft back with a friendly note saying “Some lovely ideas here. Just take all the time travel stuff out.” Because it’s actually quite dull.

When it comes to a grating lack of creativity, though, it’s hard to beat the allegedly adorable Sox, the robot cat who helps Buzz.

Now, we’ve had funny robot sidekicks for yonks; from Lost in Space, Buck Rogers and Star Wars all the way to Interstellar. So we’re familiar with the idea.

But when the comedy techno-sidekick is as self-consciously cute as Sox is in Lightyear, you begin wishing an asteroid shower would suddenly strike Buzz and Sox just to end the big-eyed appeal for audience affection. Talk about cheap.

Ironically, one of the bugbears about the film is that it is so visually splendid. We expect that of all high-end studio animation films today.

Yet Lightyear is not a film of today, it’s meant to be from 1995. So why does it look like a film made in 2022?

What a lost opportunity. Would it not have been a lot more fun, and creatively challenging, to have Lightyear reflect the state of digital animation as it was back in 1995, with all those wonderful imperfections and quirks that have now been smoothed out?

Man, how fab it would have been to see a return to old-style CGI without the clinical slickness we now take for granted.

Lightyear is not one of those animated features where you can say how adults will be as entertained as well as children. Adults are likely to be peeved by the weak story, the clichés and the lack of originality.

You can say that Lightyear is strictly for kids – provided those kids can endure the overlong running time (why isn’t it 80 minutes?) and keep up with the twists and turns of the time travel story. Perhaps they should watch the Back to the Future trilogy as prep. (Just trying to help.)

Still, the film does serve a valuable purpose by again demonstrating how Pixar, once a daring, creatively innovative animation studio respected for its outside-the-box approach to story, is now content to operate well inside the box – and without the care for narrative or originality it was once famed for.

While in Australia promoting Cars in 2006, director and former Pixar guru John Lasseter agreed how the success of the studio was pinned by how “everybody wants to imitate Pixar, except Pixar”.

Well, that was then. Seems Pixar is happy to trade on its legacy to produce multiplex mulch such as Lightyear, which will no doubt make a pile, thanks to the automatic brand appeal and the ubiquitous signage.

Footnote: Before the preview screening on Tuesday, your humble reviewer spoke with a respected, long-standing colleague about the whole Rebel Wilson/Sydney Morning Herald mess.

We both agreed how the idea of Rebel Wilson being in a same-sex relationship was not only her business, the notion of a same-sex relationship was a non-story, a non-issue.

We then sat back and watched a $200 million Disney film that said exactly the same thing.

That a corporate megalith such as Disney, with its family-friendly ethos and global reach, considers same-sex relationships a part of normal, everyday life should be taken as a marker of how accepted and unremarkable same-sex relationships now are.