There is nothing whatsoever wrong with Lightyear

There is nothing whatsoever wrong with Lightyear, the latest animated movie by Pixar/Walt Disney. It does exactly what it says in its opening title: provide the Toy Story universe with the origin myth behind the Buzz Lightyear action figure. Nothing less, and definitely nothing more. It has no irony, no guile, and no complex metatextual artifice for the adult viewer to decode while the younger viewers enjoy the space-opera plot. There are no knowing winks, no gags for the initiated. Just a 100-minute piece of (fictional) intellectual property history set in a (fictional) universe, played bafflingly straight. As if that universe was real, and Lightyear was a documentary.

But the Toy Story universe isn’t real. It has magic in it. By contrast, there is no magic in the (twice-fictional) universe of Lightyear. Or, more accurately, the (fictional) makers of Lightyear would be simply unaware of the existence of magic, just like every human character in Toy Story (with the exception of Andy’s neighbour, Sid). Therefore, they couldn’t make a movie in which toys come to life and build complex societies. They could only make a boring science fiction movie about a space ranger and then manufacture lifeless toys in his likeness.

This is the movie’s first-order paradox: because its (fictional) makers are unaware that magic exists, and because its (real) makers have refused to engage in metatextuality, Lightyear couldn’t help but be less interesting than Toy Story.

The movie’s second-order paradox has to do with the fact that its only reason to exist and claim to commercial success are as a prequel to Toy Story. Imagine watching Lightyear without having seen Toy Story. Pretend that its leading character was called Neil Parsec and that you had never heard of him. You wouldn’t go to see this movie, nor would your children ask you to take them. But in the universe of Toy Story there is no movie called Toy Story, which begs the question of how this Lightyear could possibly have been so popular as to spawn the Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first place—a product so successful, in turn, as to occupy entire aisles of American department stores for years to come (as seen in Toy Story 2).

If, as Andrew Todd has written, Sony’s recent Morbius was the triumph of intellectual property over storytelling, Disney’s Lightyear is intellectual property as storytelling. It is the story of a toy, written by people who don’t know that toys come alive. It is a movie that exists solely because of its franchise yet narrows its imaginary boundaries. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with it.

While Toy Story was riven with contradictions—chiefly, for how its thematic nostalgia for a pre-digital world of well-made toys and imaginary play was produced by the studio whose single-minded mission was to put computers at the centre of animation and storytelling—Lightyear is nothing if not thematically and ideologically coherent, and allows its utopia of a society governed by military leaders to unfold in the background, free of scrutiny or debate. While the successful implementation of the colony’s laser shield may carry time-appropriate echoes of the (then) lingering debate over Reagan’s star wars programme, the filmmakers allowed themselves a single anachronism: the inclusion of a same-sex marriage storyline which, while becoming embroiled in Disney’s ongoing struggles against its even more conservative detractors in 2022, suggests that the alternative 1995 in which Andy and his family lived was rather more socially progressive than our own.

If we accept that it was Toy Story that made Lightyear possible, we must also acknowledge that its makers took significant risks, both creative and commercial, to far more uncertain ends than the easily projectable returns of this latest spin-off. Pixar cared enough about those beginnings and the integrity of that particular story that, after being acquired by Disney, it initially refused to make Toy Story 3, until then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner set up another studio within the company and threatened to get them to do it instead. It seems that no such gun was held to the heads of the studio chiefs this time around, and that Lightyear is where Pixar is at now, having perhaps entered the ‘hollow mannerism’ stage of its artistic development.

Yet, even as far as mannerism goes, what I found most disappointing about Lightyear was the lack of formal ambition. If this was a movie for young adults made some time before Toy Story, set in the universe of Toy Story, there was an opportunity for its makers to set a foot wrong. To do something both interesting and risky. Namely, to recover and give new expression to the style of early Pixar movies, or the 2D animation studios that the company put out of business. Not in the interest of the nostalgia that the youngest members of its original public—now old enough to be parents themselves—might feel. Rather, to demonstrate an awareness of history and that there is a direction in big-budget animation other than the inescapable, correct way forward.


Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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