The plot of Lightyear hangs on a giant spacecraft crashing to the ground, an abortive take-off attempt stranding it on the surface of a remote and hostile planet. I’m sure it wasn’t director Angus MacLane’s intention to house within his film a metaphor so appropriate for its box-office performance. The sad fact, alas, is that Pixar’s latest was just as much a misfire, taking barely enough from its cinema run to cover its estimated $200m budget.
Factor in distribution, marketing and other expenditures and we’re looking at a hole in Disney’s balance sheet of craterous proportions. Yet it is not what Lightyear lost that matters, but what it has cost its makers in reputation and prestige. Since 1995 the emirs of Emeryville have shown a rare and uncanny ability to entertain, amuse and satisfy their audience with superior, intelligent and form-advancing product. How did they manage to get it so catastrophically wrong?
The ruling mantra at Pixar used to be that story is king. Lightyear, though, is wholly beholden to its concept: the bemusing notion that it was this film that made Andy want to own a Buzz Lightyear toy. That’s a weird abstraction to get your brain around, and even more so after it is revealed (spoiler alert!) that Buzz is also the movie’s villain. Is this an origin story, or a wholesale character assassination? You have to wonder given how bull-headed Buzz behaves, qualities that linger even after he has found new buds who’ll tolerate his egotism.
The bigger problem with Lightyear, however, is that it trades on our affection for the Toy Story franchise while giving us precious little in return. Chris Evans’ Buzz isn’t Tim Allen’s, yet he – and we – are only here thanks to what Allen brought to the character. Take the original Buzz out of the equation, and you have an empty spacesuit engaged in meaningless heroics on a world we all can’t wait to leave. Lightyear is like being taken on a journey we didn’t want to go on by people who don’t know where they’re going. Or is it just me?