Buzz Lightyear: Space Ranger, and now a solo star. Lightyear is just around the corner, a new unique venture in franchise expansion for Pixar. Sure, the studio has had an abundance of sequels and prequels in the past 12 years, but Lightyear represents a new meta in universe world-building. For the uninitiated, the film is the origin story of the fictional space ranger that Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies is based on. For greater clarification, here’s the official synopsis:

The definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear, the hero who inspired the toy. Lightyear follows the legendary Space Ranger after he is marooned on a hostile planet 4.2 million light-years from Earth alongside his commander and their crew. As Buzz tries to find a way back home through space and time, he is joined by a group of ambitious recruits and his charming robot companion cat, Sox. Complicating matters and threatening the mission is the arrival of Zurg, an imposing presence with an army of ruthless robots and a mysterious agenda.

The movie is described as the first Lightyear film that young Andy saw, inspiring him to ask his mom for the Buzz toy in the backstory to the original Toy Story. If we’re to assume that Toy Story took place in the 90s, you’re telling me that world had advanced special effects, like what we’ve seen so far from Lightyear, over 25 years ago? I don’t recall anyone even using a cell phone in that movie. How did they get 4K before we did?

Nonetheless, Lightyear isn’t a brand new concept. Realizing early on that Buzz had the most marketing potential, especially among young boys, Disney and Pixar developed the straight-to-home-video 2D animated movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (2000).

That movie segued into a short-lived television show. As evidenced by the quick trailer above, Star Command was a quirky, spastic, and intentionally silly bit of children’s entertainment. Still, it maintained the premise of depicting the fictional world that the toy line is based on. However, that concept has been tweaked with Lightyear, like this film, while still light and humorous at times, takes a more serious approach to the material. The best way to exemplify that is to view the most recent trailer for the film:

If Star Command was modeled after Saturday morning cartoons, Lightyear is positioned as a full-fledged blockbuster, Pixar’s most aggressive push into the action movie genre this side of The Incredibles. The approach has certainly hyped audiences up for the movie, as anticipation has grown ever since the first teaser. Chris Evans, as the voice of Buzz, in place of the easily recognizable Tim Allen, seems to be inspired casting and signals Disney’s intent for this film to be just the start of a brand new franchise. The latest trailer reveals a lot about the plot but thankfully also leaves some unanswered questions – how will Buzz’s archrival, Zurg, factor into the story? Will Buzz make it back to earth, and what will his final destination mean for potential sequels?

But the most pertinent question is if Lightyear can get audiences to buy into this new world and if that is even a good thing? Pixar seems to be battling two sides of itself – the side that continues to produce original films with fun concepts and the side that makes franchises out of their biggest box office hits. Thus far, we know which side is winning. Since the pandemic, Pixar has been among the studios negatively impacted, seeing Soul and Luca released on Disney+ as opposed to having a wide release. However, the real sticking point was when Turning Red was relegated to being a Disney+ release, despite movie theaters re-opening and new movies hitting the silver screen every week. It was seen as a slap in the face to the filmmakers and a sign that Disney is willing to sacrifice certain Pixar movies if it can aid in helping Disney+ chase Netflix for worldwide subscribers.

However, they clearly see a lot more money on the table for Lightyear, as the film is set to have a normal theatrical window. It represents a worrying trend that Disney won’t wholly support original projects but will bend over backward for franchises that have already made money. But Pixar should be a brand name that can sell a movie on its own – they’ve built such a track record that you go to the movies for the studio first, the specific film second.

Which, in many ways, makes Lightyear’s pending success a no-win scenario. If it’s a huge hit, Disney will feel justified in giving the known brand name a theatrical release. If it disappoints, Disney will feel justified in relegating previous Pixar films to their streaming service. So, I guess I have to hope the movie is good and hope it somehow leads to more support for the films that aren’t a part of the “boy’s club,” so to speak. I’m excited, I’m pessimistic, and I’m concerned. Like Buzz himself, it seems to get back to a familiar world, even for Hollywood, seems like an impossible mission.

Lightyear hits theaters, including large format screens, everywhere on June 17th.