Pixar’s “Lightyear” is a triumphant return to the character of Buzz Lightyear (in a different reality), but after the diversity “Turning Red,” “Lightyear” is a return to a visual binary view of diversity in Black and White. Be sure to stay for the POST-credits scene.
This spin-off from the “Toy Story” series, imagines the film that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy (voiced by Tim Allen in the Toy Story films). Co-written by Angus MacLane and Jason Headley and directed by MacLane, the film is about a test pilot and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) who makes the decision to detour from their journey back home to explore a planet that shows signs of life. His best friend and commander Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba). Hawthorne insists they bring the rookie, Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader). The lifeforms are hostile–vines that spring from out of the soil and large insects that swarm and attack. Aborting their exploration, Lightyear and Hawthorne make it back to the turnip-shaped spaceship which is being held down by the sentient vine tentacles. Lightyear goes back to rescue the rookie, but that means the botanical tentacles have more time to wrap around the ship. Although the rookie asks if he can help. Lightyear insists that he can do it all by himself–without the help of either the rookie or IVAN (Internal Voice Activated Navigator), but the turnip fails to totally clear all of the rocky terrain resulting in the crew being marooned on the planet.
The rest of the crew–space rangers and scientists–are awakened out of their suspended sleep to try and resolve the problem of fixing the spaceship and returning home. The problem is getting the right formula to form a crystal that will make hyperdrive possible. Lightyear, feeling guilty over his mistake, volunteers to test various formulations, but each test sends him into the future. While other like Hawthorne are living their lives, getting married, having kids and growing old, Lightyear remains relatively the same age until Alisha Hawthorne dies. His mission to find the right formula for the crystal is scraped with a new commander taking over, Commander Burnside. Yet Sox has been working on the crystal formula for over six decades and believes to have figured it out. Stealing an airplane, Lightyear decides to make one more test and it works, but he returns to a world under attack by robots from a large technologically advanced spaceship that hovers over the planet. The dark figure behind the invasion is Emperor Zurg (James Brolin).
In the two decades that his last trip took, the community of Earthlings has built a force field for protection over their city. The shields went up while a small group of space ranger wanna-bes were having their monthly meeting and those are the people that Lightyear must work with. While Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha, leads the group, none of them have combat experience or weapons training although one of them, a felon named Darby Steel (Dale Soules), supposedly can take any three things and make an explosive. The other member, Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) was going to quit.
As you might predict, Lightyear will find redemption and have his reputation restored in battling this new threat and bringing out the best in this ragtag crew. Don’t think too much about the science of hyperspace or other being shot into the future problems. Director Angus MacLane handles the action and the emotional scenes deftly. The hyperspace scenes reminded me of “Star Trek” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” We get the sense that Lightyear has to have a certain amount of crazy to do what he does. The voice acting by Chris Evans and James Brolin is exceptional.
Be sure to stay for the post-credits scene (there is a mid-credits scene as well). I had to yell for people at the press screening for people to stay and half had already walked out.
Although East Asians are acknowledged in the scientist who marries Alisha Hawthorne, that’s really a throw-away, superficial diversity inclusion. The woman is named Kiko which sounds like a Japanese name but this is a role without any lines. We never know what kind of scientist Kiko is. She’s not instrumental to the plot. And her granddaughter, Izzy doesn’t look particularly as if she’s part East Asian.
Remember that while people of Asian descent are only 7.2 percent of the US national population (and that percentage includes people who would not be mistaken as East Asian), this film is a presentation of an international community. Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group on Earth. The Chinese comprise about 20 percent of the world population and that doesn’t even include other East Asian ethnic groups such as the Koreans (North and South), the Japanese and other ethnic groups (Filipino and Vietnamese) that have recently felt the anti-Asian hate because people see them as Chinese.
Without knowing that New Zealander Taika Waititi is voicing one of the characters, you don’t see representation of AAPI visually. Waititi, much like Dwayne Johnson, seems to pop up everywhere for representation of AAPI diversity. That’s problematic because those two men are ambiguous representation. Johnson is both Black and Pacific Island (Samoan), but even Samoans can be considered Collective Black.
Waititi’s Mo Morrison appears Black. His character might be Collective Black but still the appearance of the main characters becomes Black and White. Izzy, Alisha and Burnside as well as Mo Morrison all present as Black. Why decide to have two commanders who are Black?
Korean American Peter Sohn voices Sox. I don’t know if a cat counts as representation just like I question a character named Fifth Brother with a celadon green face (Sung Kang in “Obi-Wan Kenobi”) being representation for East Asians in the Star Wars universe. That character, Fifth Brother, is, like Waititi’s Mo Morrison and Sohn’s cat also teamed with a strong female Black character–Moses Ingram as Reva Sevander. Fifth Brother, however, does have lines.
Kiko, Alisha Hawthorne’s wife, has no lines. I’ve heard that in China, there’s a name for a “Chinese actor who appears in a Hollywood movie but plays a minimal role”: Hua ping (flower vase).
But Hua Ping seems like a variation of an older Hollywood tradition: minorities as ornamental background and, even if they have a name, they have no lines. This has been going on for decades and some people, like my husband, count lines. While Kiko may represent something new (LGBTQ representation via a same-sex kiss), she also represents something old: An East Asian character that is mere window dressing. The story isn’t interested in Kiko beyond what she means to the Black female lesbian character Alisha. Kiko’s connection with Izzy has no resonance.
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In “Lightyear,” there are secondary characters with lines that give representation to the Latino community, Airman Diaz voiced by Efren Ramirez, and the explosives expert Darby Steel (Dale Soules) gives representation to older generations.
Overall, “Lightyear” is a great storytelling, a lovely yarn about space adventure with exceptional voice acting and a good balance between danger and humor, but it also tells a story about how Hollywood still struggles with diversity beyond a binary of Black and White.
“Lightyear” made its world premiere at the El Capitan Theatre on 8 June 2022 and released in theaters in the US on 17 June 2022.