As its name suggests, the various Toy Story movies have always been a story of one toy: Woody. Over the course of four movies, the beloved sheriff has overcome every obstacle thrown his way while also transforming from a simple, conceited show-off to an empathetic leader who always puts the needs of others above his own. But at the end of Toy Story 4, it looks like our time with Woody may have finally come to an end, as he left Bonnie’s room and to metaphorically ride off into the sunset with Bo Peep and explore life as a free toy. Woody’s departure begs the obvious question: which toy’s story are we following now?
At first, the answer would appear obvious: This is Buzz’s story now, right? After all, he’s far and away, the most popular character in the franchise not named Woody and the entire series begins with his unexpected arrival in Andy’s room. But while Buzz may seem like the choice on paper, the truth is Buzz can never replace Woody as the face of the Toy Story empire. Why? Simply put, Buzz Lightyear is a total idiot.
Buzz’s lowkey stupidity has been bubbling under the surface since the very first film but it really came into prominence with Toy Story 4, as he manages to contribute nothing of real value over the course of the film. While Woody is concocting a plan to rescue Forky from Gabby Gabby while simultaneously processing what life after Andy looks like and reconnecting with his old flame, Buzz’s role in the movie is basically one extended gag. After Woody’s simplistic explanation of his conscience (he refers to it as his “inner voice”) sails right over his best buddy’s head, Buzz interprets it literally by using his voice command to guide him for the rest of the movie, including leaving the RV to find Woody despite having literally no idea where Woody is (as opposed to Jesse, who wisely buys Woody time by putting a nail through the tire). Even when he teams up with Woody and Bo, he doesn’t really do much beyond just being there because he’s Buzz Lightyear.
Don’t get me wrong, Buzz is still really funny. In fact, with the rest of the gang spending pretty much the entire movie in Bonnie’s RV, the space ranger is arguably the most consistent source of laughs in Toy Story 4. Even the relatively-thin ‘inner voice’ bit works better than it should due to Tim Allen fully committing to Buzz’s absurd hubris. The problem isn’t whether or not Buzz is funny; it’s that, at this point in the franchise, Buzz is mostly played as a source comic relief. With each subsequent film, he’s become less and less essential to the main plot and more and more of a source of low-stakes laughs to briefly distract from whatever the movie is actually about.
In the first Toy Story, Buzz experiences just as much emotional growth as Woody. And arguably the saddest moment in the first movie was watching Buzz as he is forced to come to terms with the fact that he’s a toy and not the Captain Kirk-esque space explorer he believed himself to be.
But since that moment, he’s experienced almost no real growth as a character and has increasingly been pushed into completely inessential b-plots. In Toy Story 2, he takes on a leadership role to rescue Woody but by Toy Story 3 & 4, his entire presence has to do with the fact that he’s kind of a dummy, albeit one with a good heart. He’s a classic sidekick, offering support to Woody while not needing to grow or change in any real way. Due to the popularity of Buzz, he’s always gotten significant screentime but as Woody has struggled with finding purpose and accepting loss, Buzz has dealt with increasingly idiotic shenanigans.
Up to this point, none of this has been a problem, as Woody has managed to shoulder the emotional load of the franchise while Buzz spends an entire movie playing the part of a Latin lover. But with Woody leaving the gang behind at the end of Toy Story 4, there is a question about who would take his place as the central character moving forward. Buzz seems like he’s next in line but it would feel unnatural for Buzz to suddenly return to a nuanced character for Toy Story 5. It would be like if the next Muppet movie focused on Fozzie Bear instead of letting him tell incredibly dumb jokes while Kermit and Miss Piggy try to sort through their latest misunderstanding. It’s just not the movie we want to see.
If Pixar does make a fifth Toy Story that is focused on the original crew, they would be better off focusing on someone like Jesse or even Forky while letting Buzz remain a lovable buffoon who gets himself into all sorts of hilarious hi-jinx. Otherwise, Toy Story risks losing the depth and emotional complexity that has made it one of the most beloved franchises of the last 25 years.