For almost three decades now, Pixar has brilliantly understood how to sell fans a reconstruction of feelings, places and childhood memories in ever new variants, which the term nostalgia only inadequately describes. Nostalgia does not apply because these key stimuli are fabricated. They evoke feelings of something past that one has never experienced oneself and yet seems instinctively familiar.
The fact that the imagination in the Pixar logic is ultimately just a product that you can watch as it emerges and unfolds (despite all the dramatic complications) makes the best moments – from “WALL-E” to “Everything is upside down” to “Soul” – the visual charm of this anthropomorphic metaverse. A greater, perhaps even more poisonous compliment could not be given to a film studio than to certify that it has successfully combined the production of the imagination with the production of goods. Playing with the audience’s emotions while peering into the engine room of this affective labor is an old cinematic trick. At Pixar, however, they have perfected it for children and adults.
This instant nostalgia still works best in the “Toy Story” films, which – in contrast to the toy figures – have aged generations of viewers. The protagonists’ agelessness can prove to be an invaluable asset for a long-lived franchise – at least until their teenage owner eventually dumps the toy in the attic. It’s a different kind of cinematic nostalgia than the one Hollywood serves today, when it presents the heroes of the past – from Luke Skywalker to the Terminator – in their fragile transience to aging fans.
As such, “Lightyear,” a spin-off of the “Toy Story” films that the studio is selling as a prequel (shameless misnomer!), is a clever reverse engineering of Pixar nostalgia. Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, who embodied the new high-tech gimmick in little Andy’s retro nursery in the 1990s, travels into the future in a way in his solo film. His square chin shows no signs of aging, and for him each test flight with hyperdrive lasts only a few minutes. His comrades who are stranded with him on a planet, on the other hand, age by years every time.
Thus “Lightyear”, in the guise of a virtuoso animated science fiction film with tentacle monsters and giant robots, is also a meditation on getting older – and thus, inevitably, on personal learning processes in the style of crash coaching. For the Space Ranger, this evolution is taking place in a very short time, while around one generation follows the next. In the original, Chris “Captain America” Evans lends his voice to Buzz, a superhero crossover under the Disney banner.
The prequel idea is explained right at the beginning with a short explanation – and ticked off. “Lightyear” is the film about the fictional space ranger, who ended up in “Toy Story” as an action figure in Andy’s children’s room. But without the old toy friends, “Lightyear” lacks the charm of the original films, and even its new crew can’t compensate for this.
In order to successfully complete his rescue mission, the return of the space colonizers to Earth, he has to be content with a group of less talented but all the more energetic misfits: Mo, Darby and Izzy, the granddaughter of his former commander. The secret main character and candidate for another spin-off, however, is the android therapy cat Sox, who is supposed to help Buzz deal with his time travel trauma and also has a few helpful high-tech gimmicks.
That you can spark controversy with such a family-friendly entertainment product (even if the design is more Top Gun than Toy Story) says a lot about our times. In the current culture war over sex education classes in US elementary schools (“Don’t Say Gay!”), Disney in particular has come under heavy criticism from Republicans and right-wing evangelicals with its new diversity policy. The fact that the commander, Izzy’s grandmother, is married to a woman has now also led to cinema boycotts in the Muslim world. But that’s what makes good science fiction: You’re always afraid of what’s closest to our reality.