It has long been a slightly regrettable fact that any sign of a major Hollywood studio putting serious money behind a summer movie that isn't a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation of a property from another media is cause for surprise (unless Christopher Nolan is directing it, anyway). The levels of ingenuity involved in building franchises out of the most unpromising material are enough to make you wonder why they didn't just fish a cryogenically-preserved Leo out of the Atlantic and take a punt at Titanic 2, and why that Nick Cave-scripted Gladiator sequel which concluded with an immortal Russell Crowe working at the present-day Pentagon never got the green light – it's getting to the point where this sort of thing is almost run of the mill.
As a case in point, let us take a look at Angus McLane's Lightyear, which, you might expect, would be a fairly straightforward spin-off from the long-running Toy Story franchise, centring on Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear character. Well, yes and no: for while the film concerns the various exploits of Buzz Lightyear, the character in question is not the toy we have previously become familiar with. No, this Buzz Lightyear is an actual space adventurer, a real person (or at least as real as someone can be when they are a CGI construct, anyway). How does that work, then?
Well – and, as they say, strap yourselves in – Lightyear is essentially a kind of film-within-a-film, in that it is apparently a work of fiction from within the Toy Story universe. The original Buzz Lightyear toy was a piece of merchandise for the (fictitious) Lightyear movie which came out in 1995. It's a rather odd film-within-a-film as the film it's supposedly within never directly features it and came out 27 years ago anyway. If you turn up late to the movie, there are no signs that Lightyear is actually a piece of meta-fiction, as this doesn't inform the plot and is only mentioned in a couple of opening captions.
After that we're off on a fairly lively space adventure, as the vessel on which Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans on this occasion) lands to explore a mysterious alien planet. Needless to say the place turns out to be considerably more hostile than initially appears to be the case, and the ship attempts an emergency take-off: but, largely due to Buzz's own monumental ego, the ship is forced to crash-land, its vital fuel element destroyed.
The mission becomes one of creating a new fuel source and using it to get the various unwilling colonists back into space. But, wouldn't you know it, this isn't as easy as it sounds and the lightspeed barrier proves a tricky obstacle. Compounding the problem is that every one of Buzz's test-flights takes him closer to it, resulting in time dilation and him finding himself projected further and further into the future – friends and colleagues grow old and build lives for themselves on the planet while he remains a youthful over-achiever.
Eventually the new leaders of the colony decide that, as they've been here for many decades now and there's still no realistic prospect of the fuel cell working, the escape project is to be shut down. This completely goes against Buzz's 'finish the mission!' ethos, and so – along with his robot cat – he sets off on one last unauthorised test flight, determined to make amends for his original mistake…
You could argue that Pixar have for once missed a trick by not leaning more into the whole this-film-was-supposedly-made-in-1995 angle, as there's surely potential there for some jokes about the rather variable quality of mid-1990s science fiction films (it's a little bit too late, historically, but if you close your eyes and squint there are some definite similarities between Lightyear and the big-screen version of Lost in Space from 1998). As it stands, the metafictional conceit doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny – quite apart from whether this is supposed to be a CGI movie, or a live-action movie made in a CGI world, adventure films about time-dilation were thin on the ground back in 1995, especially ones which are as ostentatiously progressive as this (Lightyear feels like the kind of film which treats being banned in the Middle East as a badge of honour).
The heady aroma of the (fairly) early 21st century surrounds the film, anyway: both the hero and the antagonist (Josh Brolin) are Marvel alumni, and one key element of the plot is not so much similar to as exactly the same as one in a Warner Brothers animation from over three and a half years ago (the lead times on Pixar movies can be considerable, but this is still awkward, to say the least). As a contemporary animated movie, Lightyear is… well, it's okay, I suppose. It looks stunning, as you might expect, with superb designs and animation. The cast do their best with the script (apart from Evans and Brolin, probably the best-known participant is the inescapable Taika Waititi, who has presumably given up sleeping), but it's probably here that the film's problems lie.
The structure is a bit odd and takes a while to settle down. A bigger problem is the fact that the very premise of the Toy Story movies meant they were whimsical, largely comic fantasies. The internal logic of the film would suggest that this, however, should be a more straightforward adventure film – but someone on the production seems to have felt a bit uneasy about this, and as a result there are quite few broadly comic moments, up to and including slapstick. The moral premise of the movie – the message the kids are supposed to take away with them – also seems to have got a bit confused somewhere along the way. Initially it very much looks like 'take responsibility for your own actions,' a creed so simple and laudable that anyone other than a British Prime Minister could get on board with it. But by the end it's turned into 'don't needlessly muck about with the time-line', which is a lot less clear-cut and has many fewer applications.
Lightyear still isn't that bad a movie – there are some decent jokes, it's well-assembled, and visually it's a treat for the eyes. But the same is true of all the other Pixar films, including all the ones with scripts which are much better-constructed and with more genuine heart to them than this one. It's certainly not the worst film of the summer, but future outings for our fragile plastic chum should only follow a bit of a rethink about the terms of engagement of the whole undertaking.