There's a reason we never saw footage from Rochelle, Rochelle, the fictional movie from Seinfeld.
Conceptually, it was a parody of those hammy ’90s Miramax Oscar-bait movies, and the film’s very existence is the whole joke — we don't need to actually see the ill-fated journey from Milan to Minsk in order to get it. That's not to say a real Rochelle, Rochelle would be a bad movie, but it would kind of kill the fun if Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David decided to make it anything more than a recurring gag.
Lightyear is kind of like Pixar’s Rochelle, Rochelle, but an actual movie. The premise: This is the film that Andy (the kid from Toy Story) apparently watched in 1995 that inspired him to want a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Of course, the Lightyear of that movie was a self-serious doofus who didn’t realize he was a toy, built on a goofy sci-fi premise printed on his packaging. Nobody ever really needed to see where Lightyear came from, if only because that’s what Woody was trying to deprogram. The iconic “You are a toy!” confrontation in the Dinoco gas station parking lot between a delusional galactic man and an exasperated cowboy is a pivotal moment in cinema for a reason. Buzz is not a space ranger. That was the point.
This is a different Buzz — voiced here by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen. It's a Buzz without the fish-out-of-water comedic premise and the identity crisis. Pixar trying to mine the hallowed Toy Story franchise for everything it’s worth was bound to happen at some point — it's a miracle they pulled off four legitimately great movies in the original series. Rather than embracing the corniness of its existence, Lightyear feels too stoic, too reverent of a past that never really was supposed to be all that revered in the first place. But anyway, leave it to Pixar to take a silly premise and infuse it with a vibrant array of space action, a decent bit of emotion and the world’s cutest robot cat.
The irony of this film is that it really doesn’t need to exist, and yet it’s still good for what it’s worth. As mopey as this Buzz can be, the creative team has put together a decent story about how it’s OK to make mistakes, and how even big mistakes can produce unexpected treasures. There is a sweetness here, but it’s connected to a rather milquetoast space story that musters barely an ounce of humor out of its seriousness. All the film’s fun is packed into Sox the helpful cat robot assistant, who gets all of the film’s best laughs and puts Lightyear into hyperspeed whenever he, like, gets belly scratches, spins his cute little head around and makes a lighter come out of his mouth. The Pixar of old probably would've made the whole film about Sox somehow, but the Disney capital machine has to focus on the big name. And that's too bad, because frankly, the cat is way more interesting than the spaceman.
Lightyear is a good time when it’s not being overly stoic, but it’s evident what a chasm there is between this and the films that inspired it. If your kid goes into this, rushes out in excitement and wants to dress in Lightyear gear for Halloween, the film achieved its key mission. Though, it’s a slight bummer that the kids of ’95 had Toy Story to blow their minds, and the kids of ’22 will only get the movie that inspired the fake kid in the Toy Story to want a toy for his birthday.