The Movie Guru: “Toy Story” tie-in makes “Lightyear” an odd movie

Grade: Two and a half stars

Jenniffer Wardell, The Movie Guru
"Lightyear" opens in theaters this weekend.
Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

“Lightyear” left me with so many questions.

The movie, opening in theaters this weekend, is supposedly the in-universe backstory for “Toy Story” characters Buzz Lightyear and Emperor Zurg. It’s also a B-level sci-fi flick, complete with a tormented hero and the kind of deeply dodgy science that falls apart when you think about it at all. Alone, either would probably be a decent way to spend an afternoon.

It’s when you put them together, though, that things get weird.

The movie opens with Buzz making a big enough mistake to strand a colony ship on a strange planet. (At least, it looks like a colony ship. But Buzz can’t stop talking about being able to go home, to a place where he could once again be a space ranger, which doesn’t sound like a colony.) Buzz is so obsessed with fixing his mistake that he burns away the next 100 years of his life, losing his best friend in the process, and resorting to crime.

That’s when he runs into a rag-tag group of wannabe space rangers, including his best friend’s granddaughter. Along with Buzz’s therapy cat bot, they’ll face the biggest threat their little backwater planet has ever seen — Zurg and his robot army. Can they save the day, or will Buzz’s next mistake cost him everything?

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If you ignore the tie-in elements, it’s a solid sci-fi adventure with so many science-based plot holes it’ll give you a headache if you think about them too hard. I’ll spare you the details, but I’m particularly annoyed that most of the holes could have easily been fixed. Just a few lines at the right moment in the script.

Still, there are things to like. There’s a positive message here, about learning to make peace with your mistakes and finding new dreams. There’s also a ton of deeply gorgeous animation, complete with little moments where the animators were clearly just showing off. The team-related hijinks are fun, the final face-off is interesting, and the robots are appropriately intimidating.

Buzz’s cat bot is both adorable and hilarious enough to draw in both kids and adults, and completely steals the show more than once. (If this really was the movie that inspired the Buzz Lightyear doll, it would have been completely overshadowed by robot cat toys. There’s a world out there somewhere where the co-lead of the “Toy Story” movies is a big orange cat with a fake flamethrower in its mouth. Picture it.)

But what works decently well in a B sci-fi movie becomes really weird when it’s the backstory for cartoon characters. The strangest element of this is the truth about Emperor Zurg, which is actually somewhat affecting in the movie. In the context of the “Toy Story” movies, however, it’s deeply unsettling. If action-figure Buzz ever heard about it, he’d probably need therapy.

Which means that, in the end, my biggest question is whether I’ll ever be able to watch the “Toy Story” movies the same way again.

Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at

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