Favorite Fictional Characters, #282: Buzz Lightyear
The Toy Story films are perhaps Pixar's greatest, most enduring achievement. All of us as children imagined that our toys were more than just plastic or metal or cloth and stuffing, our unbroken imaginations imbuing them with personalities, hopes, fears, lives. Somewhere along the way we learned better, learned that the worlds we had created weren't real, and we set aside our toys and turned our attention instead to a world less imaginative, less just, less magical. At the end of the third film, there's a reason it gets a little dusty in theaters when Andy bequeaths his beloved toys to another child. It's a pretty blunt metaphor for the passing of childhood we've all endured, the loss of innocence and all those worlds we created. We mourn for ourselves a little, but those of us with children of our own mourn even more as we see it coming, inch by inch, for them.
Buzz Lightyear is both avatar and antidote for this bittersweet tragedy. He believes he's a real space ranger, an epic hero in the battle against evil. The other toys, notably Woody, do their best to disabuse him of this conceit, frustrated that here is a soul with vision and dreams and ambition. No, they tell him, you're not an astronaut. You're not a space ranger. You're just a toy. Bounded by their own deflated, eroding egos, they cannot stand the interloper in their midst with his shiny new optimism and bluff bravado. He's told to get with the program, to conform to the rules of the toy box, and give up these crazy dreams.
Eventually, of course, Buzz does realize that there's some truth to Woody's framing of their shared reality. And here's what I love most about Buzz Lightyear: even while he accepts that limitation, he fights through the despair of it, and he refuses to jettison his core belief that he is a hero, that he is meant for great things, that his horizon extends to infinity...and beyond. Even as his world shrinks, and his possibilities dwindle, he never yields up that kernel of himself that whispers to him in the dark that he is someone special, that he matters.
The Toy Story series cover a lot of ground - friendship, courage, sacrifice, growing up. But of all the lessons and themes that make these such wonderful, timeless tales, it's the ineradicable faith in himself of Buzz Lightyear that stays with me.