Lightyear Ending Explained: Buzz Gets By With A Little Help From His Friends

Pixar has been away from theaters for more than two years now, ever since "Onward" had its run cut dramatically short by the pandemic back in early 2020. After the likes of "Soul," "Luca," and "Turning Red" all went directly to Disney+, the time has finally arrived for one of the most reliable brands in the history of cinema to return to the big screen with "Lightyear"  — a unique "Toy Story" spin-off about the movie that inspired the toy Buzz Lightyear.

Hailing from director Angus MacLane, the movie sees Chris Evans voicing the title hero, a Space Ranger determined to carry out his missions in the unknowns of, well, space. But, as is often the case with Pixar films, there are some deeper themes and rich lessons at play here by the time the movie's ending rolls around. So we're here to go over the ending and what it all means, both in a literal and richer sense. Let's dig in.

Warning: major spoilers ahead for "Lightyear." Proceed with caution.

A brief recap

"Lightyear" has a deceptively simple plot with layers of classic sci-fi complication thrown in the mix to make it all a bit more interesting. We open with Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) making a surprise detour in their "Turnip" of a spacecraft, which houses hundreds if not thousands of other Earthlings traversing the galaxy to explore the unknown. Unfortunately, the planet that they discover has lots of hostile life in the form of sentient vines and big, mean bugs. In attempting to escape the planet, Buzz, putting it all on his shoulders (something he does throughout the movie), narrowly scrapes the side of a mountain, resulting in a crash landing on the planet.

This not only disables the ship but destroys their hyperspeed crystal. Even though Buzz tries to court marshall himself for his actions, Alisha encourages him to finish the mission. Not only is this Buzz's sworn duty as a Space Ranger, but his very best friend who wants nothing more than to continue her work among the stars, has asked him to do it. So, a plan is hatched to achieve crystallic fusion by mining the planet's resources and setting up a base of operations. After a year of work, the test flight is ready to go.

Unfortunately, Buzz's first test flight fails and, because of time dilation while he's attempting to achieve lightspeed, what was just four minutes for him was four years for everyone else on the planet. The dilemma? To finish the mission he will have to continue to lose years to agelessness while everyone he knows grows old. Mission after mission fails, leading to years falling off the calendar for everyone else. While Buzz is gone, the people on the planet are forced to get comfortable and live their lives. Buzz, meanwhile, is blinded by his mission.

The complication of success

Upon one of Buzz's returns, he comes to find that Alisha has passed away and Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) has taken over, intending to end the Space Ranger program. It's all about the laser shield now, and they're all just going to make due on the planet. Meanwhile, Buzz learns that Sox, his fateful robot cat, has actually figured out the formula for crystallic fusion in the years he was away. So, Buzz hatches a plan to steal a ship and complete the mission. Which, naturally, he does — but at a cost. When Buzz arrives back on the planet, things are radically changed.

A gigantic alien ship has taken over, and nothing is as it seemed before. Buzz encounters Izzy (Keke Palmer), whom he soon finds to be Alisha's Granddaughter. He's been gone for years this time. Now, in order to actually complete the mission with his working crystal, they first must have to defeat these alien robots controlled by someone they call Zurg. Izzy's rag-tag crew comes to Buzz with a plan before he realizes they are all untrained, early recruits. So, Buzz decides it would be easier to try and do this all on his own.

Bits of the mission are attempted and, every time, Buzz ends up needing the help of Alisha, Mo (Taika Waititi), Darby (Dale Soules), and yes, Sox, even if they end up causing some needless headaches as well. But just when all of the pieces have nearly come together, Alisha gets the timing a little wrong on an important maneuver, leading to an ejection of the crystal from their ship and, ultimately, Buzz's capture by Zurg (James Brolin).

Double trouble

Now, in the film's third act, things get very interesting. Zurg had been very specifically after Buzz for the entire movie and, once aboard his ship, we find out why: Zurg is actually an older Buzz! Yes, all of this time travel craziness resulted in multiple versions of Mr. Lightyear from multiple timelines. This older Buzz explains that when he landed on the planet after getting his mission right, they were going to arrest him. So, he took off and when as fast as he could, as far as he could, taking him very far into the future where wild new technology existed. Hence, his advanced robot suits and drones.

Older Buzz then figured out how to reverse time and that's why he needed younger Buzz. More specifically, Buzz's new crystal so that he could finally reverse time and make it so this incident with the crash landing on this planet never happened. But just as our Buzz is about to help old Buzz complete this reversal of time, he realizes that he has been too focused on his mission to understand that things have changed. Alisha had a great life. Izzy would not exist if he does this. Alisha would not get to meet her wife. All of these people who found lives on this planet would have that erased. When Buzz voices this concern, old Buzz understandably goes full Zurg and tries to force his hand. Cue up the epic final confrontation.

Old Sox decides to help young Buzz, liking his attitude, while Izzy and her pals hatch a plan to save Buzz from Zurg's ship. After a harrowing endeavor that involves Izzy conquering her fear of space and Buzz giving up his mission to save the people he marooned all those years ago, the heroes win the day. Zurg's ship is destroyed and the robots are defeated — even if it means that Buzz doesn't get to complete his original mission and see his friend again. But, as a consolation prize, he gets to put together a new version of Star Command at the order of Burnside, paving the way for a happy ending.

Pixar is taking us to school yet again

Throughout the film, Buzz has that can-do attitude that we so often associate with our heroes. However, it is this very thinking and determination that gets him in trouble. Alisha wanted to pause the missions after the first one so Buzz wouldn't lose any more time. But he stubbornly wanted to put the whole thing on his back. Throughout the film, largely after encountering Izzy, Buzz comes to understand that he can't do everything by himself – nor should he. Space Rangers are stronger as a unit. There's a pretty transparent lesson there about being able to ask for help and taking advice from others. Buzz, eventually, comes around to this idea.

I may not be the best student of film, but to me, there seems to be a much larger lesson here as well about grinding away at work without actually remembering to live your life. "Grind culture" has permeated a lot of our lives, particularly in the U.S. and, in many ways, Buzz is just on his grind. He can't (or won't) abandon the mission, even as everyone around him is living a real life, something he completely fails to do. Eventually, Buzz is literally staring down a much older version of himself that he doesn't recognize as a result of his work-focused actions. Zurg, as he exists in "Lightyear," may well be the ultimately metaphorical damnation of grind culture.

Pixar is great at life lessons and, as I see it, there is a big one here: work is important and can have meaning, but don't forget to live your life as well. The base-level lessons of friendship and willingness to listen to others are right there but this one, intended or not, is a bigger lesson I fear far too many of us could use a dose of currently. Work and work hard, sure, but make sure you're making it all worth it in the meantime.

"Lightyear" is in theaters now.