Enjoying Pixar‘s Lightyear 43 years ago

I recommend Lightyear – and tell of a time-travelling experience Pixar‘s latest afforded me. My viewing turned into the discovery of parallels to Disney‘s 1979 commercial failure, sci-fi epic The Black Hole, the very first film I ever saw in theaters. Note: May contain spoilers for both motion pictures. Please refer to the Wikipedia pages on The Black Hole and Lightyear for full plot summaries.

Pixar’s Lightyear was spun off the Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear action figure from 1995‘s Toy Story that launched Pixar into infinity and beyond – until 2022 that is. Lightyear hit streaming channel Disney+ at no surcharge mere weeks after its theatrical – and IMAX-enhanced – debut. The CGI-animated feature‘s failure is not the only quality it shares with The Black Hole, a massive 1979 undertaking designed to put the Walt Disney Company on the sci-fi / space opera track made commercially appealing by George Lucas‘ Star Wars in 1977. I also recommend The Black Hole, which stumbled over extraneous elements like Lightyear we shall now look into.

Narrative brothers in failure

Both Walt Disney motion pictures are science fiction stories. Set in space, they involve exploration. Events beyond the control of tightly-knit crews have them reset their priorities that ultimately put them in harm‘s way of a scientific experiment.

Said experiment involves high-speed travel through space, with point-of-view shots putting audiences in the midst of what may be likened to a preview of an upcoming theme park ride.

The central experiment conversely exposes the crew to moments of despair and loss, a situation only exacerbated by the reveal of a megalomaniac villain.

Both films also externalize the villain‘s true nature through imposing designs rivalling Satan‘s very appearance.

Throughout the increasingly taxing narrative journey into a highly stylized interpretation of hell, a robotic sidekick provides humorous interludes and life-saving solutions in the nick of time.

Robot sidekicks

The sidekick trope marks one of two crossroads for the two Walt Disney productions. Lightyear‘s robotic AI cat SOX allows the protagonist to evolve during the scientific experiment, which has unavoidably separated Buzz forever from the people he used to work and live with, never at home and in company with anyone but robot SOX, which does not age.

A.I. robot-cat SOX from Pixar‘s Toy Story spin-off “Lightyear” (C) Walt Disney Corporation

The Black Hole’s V.I.N.C.E.N.T., by contrast, is treated as a standard-issue space exploration asset. The conspicuous robot still stands out within the bleak, functional production design and the matter-of-fact repartee among The Black Hole science staff. The 1979 film insists that it wants to be a serious-minded journey along the fine line between genius and madness, science and destruction at the same time that V.I.N.C.E.N.T. strikes viewers as a kids-oriented pal, not the monkey-wrench it needs to be.

V.I.N.C.E.N.T‘s bulging Mickey Mouse eyes dominate the robot‘s bulbous, airborne appearance. Like the Stormtrooperish robots V.I.N.C.E.N.T. engages with in lightshow shoot-outs, it consequently has no place next to a mysterious scientist dabbling in the potential that black holes may harness. Actor Maximillian Schell’s imposing Dr. Reinhardt is revered by The Black Hole‘s science team, host not only to the space explorers and their robot but also an existentialist review of humanity’s further evolution.

Utility robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T., aka Vital Information Necessary Centralised, is the kid-friendly sidekick to the heroes of Walt Disney‘s dark sci-fi epic “The Black Hole“. (C) Walt Disney Corporation

As dark as Mickey Mouse ears

Lightyear shares with The Black Hole an overall dark tone both films gradually increase as the story unfolds. The Black Hole’s droids and lightgun shenanigans jostle audiences to and fro until the stark hellish ending overwhelms the supposedly intended family viewership. Dr. Reinhardt‘s scant fatherly traits eventually peel off to present his true nature graphically through a nightmarish prospect of lost souls.

Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear was introduced in Pixar‘s 1995 masterpiece “Toy Story“ that revealed what toys were up to when children were not playing with them. (C) Walt Disney Corporation

Lightyear equally startles audiences blissfully connected to Toy Story’s charm. Pixar‘s CGI production introduces no less than a traumatising variation on the beloved Buzz Lightyear character. The sarcastic, mentally scarred Buzz Lightyear from a parallel timeline casts a grim shadow on the character‘s happy origins. It registers as unbefitting the fun, upbeat design of the original Buzz Lightyear toy that is supposedly based on this darker-than-thou-thought film.

Now Lightyear deliberately pays homage to sci-fi film classics, so much so that the evil Buzz Lightyear puts on a satanic suit to help him achieve his dark goals – rendering the good Lightyear‘s life and that of his friends obsolete. The Black Hole features a nearly identical sequence where Dr. Reinhardt inserts himself in Maximillian, a red-clad military-grade assault robot, his crazy eyes peeking madly at the audience as Dr. Reinhardt‘s crew is seen climbing the volcanic slopes of hell. The Black Hole scientists meanwhile cross the event horizon into an uncertain dimension / galaxy.

1995‘s “Toy Story“ comically established Zurg as Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear‘s nemesis. In 2022‘s “Lightyear” peeks. underneath Zurg‘s satanic suit. (C) Walt Disney Corporation

Lightyear may have resolved the immediate threat but its final shot – disregarding end credit clips – shows the evil Buzz Lightyear to be kept alive by his hellish suit, which turns the erstwhile hero into villain Zurg of the original Toy Story / Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear toy line.

Dr. Reinhardt‘s robot protector “Maximillian” kills Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) during an argument, symbolically shredding Reinhardt‘s scientific findings that ultimately amount to destruction of life, not progressive elucidation. (C) Walt Disney Corporation

The Lightyear ending eerily connects with Dr. Reinhardt‘s final moments of his earthly life, his evil ending in hell. Only the unknown beyond the event horizon remains to be explored, experienced, above all, understood at the end of The Black Hole – which a tie-in comic book series actually did in 1979. For Buzz Lightyear, there is still the unspeakable evil of his alter ego to contend with in his universe.

Mad scientist Dr. Reinhardt gazes diabolically from within his deadly robotic abomination “Maximillian“, a vicious killer robot at the conclusion of “The Black Hole“ (C) Walt Disney Corporation

Failure to launch

The Black Hole was released into a competitive popular culture taking favourably to science fiction-themed properties in, so it might seem, reckless abandon. Any production company worth its salt would at the very least consider harvesting the rich soil George Lucas had tilled with his space wizards and tyrants.

The Black Hole dutifully features a heroic fanfare by John Barry, aforementioned droids and colourful laser shoot-outs. These enjoy prominence in contemporary marketing materials, several toy lines included, naturally. Such a colourful approach arguably misled families into bringing their young ones to theaters whilst deterring people that may well have been interested in what is essentially an update of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. John Barry‘s epic score supports such a theory in that its haunting main theme appears at odds with the catchy fanfare that informs the laser shoot-outs. On closer inspection, The Black Hole, marketed as a Walt Disney Production for all the family to see, musically approximates Jerry Goldsmith‘s Alien soundtrack, the Ridley Scott-directed haunted mansion film set in – yes – space that also launched in 1979.

Even visually The Black Hole is similarly functional, if much grander and epic than the deliberate minimalism that helped make Scott‘s Alien legendary. Alien was a massive success because it crucially adhered to a tonality of unrelenting consequence. Such precision The Black Hole unfortunately lacks as a virtually unsellable film that really should have been two separate productions, just as the John Barry score seems to be telegraphing to the producers with every movement of its mesmerizing notes.

Lightyear uncannily evades parody of the genre despite its comedic pedigree. As has become the norm over the last decade, former heroes need to be reduced to failures. Audiences have taken note of the sarcastic comment of current filmmakers on their predecessors‘ billion-dollar, Academy Award-winning creations. Ticket-buyers still have yet to agree with such unfounded depreciation of (former) idols. Understandably, Lightyear writers Angus Maclane and Jason Headly were looking for a more original way to explore Zurg than have him be a cookie-cutter crazy genocidal being from another galaxy / dimension. Yet do the writers not ultimately end up exactly where they were struggling not to be? Only now they have also successfully sacrificed many a child‘s – and now grownup‘s – heartfelt memories of an overly officious but insanely lovable member of the Space Rangers. To make matters worse, Zurg, the hero formerly known as Buzz, lives on to be dealt with repeatedly.

Perhaps there was a Lightyear-trilogy on the drawing board at the end of which Zurg absolves his sins and saves Buzz and SOX shortly before bursting into atoms or something or giving the thumbs-up T2-style in a fiery finale. We may never know judging by the tepid audience response.

Need for organic narration

The second major crossroads of the two not-too dissimilar films is organic narration. As commendable as it is to excavate narrative novelty from the dark recesses of the conflicted human mind, not every intellectual property proves an ideal vehicle. Unless dark turns evolve organically from a given story to deliver a shocking turn only for sensationalism‘s sake always is to the detriment of the narrative.

Audiences have become extremely adept and organized when it comes to reading pre-release codes. Lightyear‘s have surprised converted ticket buyers each in its own incriminating way. Is it really worth a +200 million dollar budget to gun for seizure-struck, open-mouthed and -eyes reaction videos instead of narrative cohesion? Maybe a darker campaign had not screened well but would it not have been the better and, above all, necessary choice? Pre-release communication cannot make up for lacking commitment to a finished product after all. Lightyear would have benefitted greatly from an honest-to-Buzz approach instead of sugar-coating a chili dish best served with a grain of salt.

The Black Hole does not suffer from a sarcastic generation‘s dry and ineffectual commentary on previous filmmaker generations. No former heroes are scuttled but characters and genres are incongruously matched. As noted above, The Black Hole unfolds smoothly on its journey to reveal the dark truth of Reinhardt‘s experiment. For purely commercial reasons though, the narrative stream is diverted from science fiction – which both The Black Hole and Lightyear are – to mismatched western shoot-outs. As these necessitate fitting gunslinger characters and this being the late Seventies, why not bring on an army of robots to empty their space guns on our science crew? It is ironic that the space gun-toting scenes in The Black Hole do follow narrative events organically, but in this genre, as in Ridley Scott’s Alien, leaving the characters unarmed might have made The Black Hole a similar bona fide sci-fi classic.

Confidence in honest product placement

Motion picture advertising has come a long way since the first glimpse of a teaser poster made people report on it nervously on the school yard. Technological progress nowadays exposes every communication to thorough pre-ticket sales analysis. Red herrings have never been as useful as today, but they should not repurpose the product.

In the pre-internet days, the Star Trek VI trailer famously showed Captain James Tiberius Kirk getting vaporized for good without misguiding overall audience expectations as to the nature of the overall film experience. Jim Carrey‘s 1996 foray into drama, however, saw nervous studio executives market The Cable Guy as yet another hit Carrey-comedy the actor had never intended it to be and that it quite simply was not.

Beyond red herringing audience into false expectations, there may also be at play the well-intentioned gravitas of letting audiences “discover” a presumably much “deeper“ film that would generate rabid positive word of mouth. Yet not only is it presumptions to be purposefully misleading, it is an external promotion strategy that cripples the narrative running on internal logic, not external sales schemes the narrative world is unrelated to.

Fitness for audience acceptance

The Black Hole was as unfit for space opera duties as Buzz Lightyear was for a lecture on self-deprecating existentialism. Existentialism is nevertheless where the two Wald Disney productions are joined at the hip. The former should have been relieved of the studio‘s Star Wars-sized aspiration. The latter deserved a confident marketing campaign extrapolating the product‘s undeniable darkness.

If you ignore external circumstance, both The Black Hole and Lightyear come recommended as good entertainment.