It’s always curious when a film becomes part of THE CULTURE WAR and to see how it will be affected by that stigma. When a film becomes verboten because of its perceived politics, it’s widely assumed that it will “get woke” and “go broke”, but this theorem is problematic. Captain Marvel and Star Wars haven’t ceased being billion dollar franchises despite their proclivities. More often then not, the failures of “woke” films — ala Oceans Eight, Ghostbusters (2016) or Charlie’s Angels — have more to do with general audience disinterest or sequel fatigue.
Lightyear though appears to have fallen into that category of “Get Woke Go Broke” though, as the film is surprisingly severely underperformed at the box office relative to what’s expected from a Pixar film — $187 million worldwide as of July 3, which by blockbuster standards is a total failure. Disney likely wanted at least $750 million international gross.
Part of that likely came to its infamous label of “woke”. The movie made a lot of noise earlier this year when Pixar promised they’d be preserving a scene with a lesbian kiss in retaliation to the recent sweep of supposed homophobia spreading across the country.
In execution, the scene is pretty tame. Disney always finds a really awkward and shallow way to integrate LGBTQ+ representation into their films in such a way that it’s easy to cut off the scenes for international markets like China, with more rabid anti-gay sentiments. The scene amounts to two shots of a lesbian family hanging out inside a doorway, much like the moments of supposed gay representation scenes in Beauty and the Beast and Rise of Skywalker.
Lightyear is a pretty boring overall; a lukewarm science fiction adventure film warmed up using aesthetics and ideas from hundreds of previous films. Almost nothing here is original or isn’t just copied directly from references to Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Even if that were okay, the story itself is nothing to write home about.
The film is your quintessential man-out-of-time story. We meet Buzz Lightyear as a member of the star rangers, escorting a new space colony deep into the outer reaches of space far from civilization. When he makes a critical mistake, the entire crew of thousands find themselves stranded on a hostile planted and Buzz now finds himself dedicated to recreating the volatile crystals that power their colony ship.
The only problem is that the tests take 4 to 20 years each due to time dilation and general relativity. By the time he finally successfully created a crystal, entire lifetimes have passed and the generation of hard bitten scientists and explorers have been replaced by younger people who have grown attached to their colony.
As lukewarm as the lesbianism subtext is, there is a very noticeable progressive subtext to Lightyear and it comes in the form of a kind of soft replacement for Buzz Lightyear’s character archetype. He’s lived to see the world outgrow his brand of space exploration and bravado, which unintentionally stranded the entire crew in the first place with no hope of rescue.
The movie ends up being about dying to yourself, pushing aside your pride and learning to work together with others — in this case a group of young diverse characters who have their own dreams of becoming better versions of themselves. One could very easily read this as a metaphor for decentering whiteness, toxic masculinity, chauvinism and pride so the coming generation of scrappy diverse young people can work together to create a better world than the one that was destroyed by the older generation.
Regardless, Lightyear doesn’t have enough energy to justify its ideas or ambitions. It’s clear this was conceived as a Toy Story spin-off first and it feels that way. It’s very cynical, and packs one of the weakest punches a Pixar film has had since Good Dinosaur. It’s ultimately quite perfunctory and lacks the heart and soul that made classic Pixar so vital and significant. Without that, all it has is its appeal to nominal progressivism.
Also it’s really weird that Tim Allen isn’t voicing Buzz, a sign I guess that Allen is too publicly and loudly conservative to work with Pixar, but not so much that Disney+ doesn’t want him back for the upcoming Santa Clause TV Show (?!?).