Pixar has taken a two year break from cinema. Dumping their past three films, Soul, Luca and Turning Red, all among the upper echelon of the studio, straight to Disney+ during the pandemic. The studio that has given the world with such cinematic treasures as Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, WALL-E and, of course, the four Toy Story films, has returned to the big screen with an origin story, of sorts. What serves as the depiction of the film that the classic character from the Toy Story films is based off, could have easily felt like an uninspired slog. Instead, this solo film following the intergalactic Space Ranger is a diverting, entertaining adventure in its own right.
As the opening titles explain, in 1995, Andy saw a film that blew his mind, leading to his desire for a Buzz Lightyear action figure. This is that film. Presented as a Star Trek-esque sci-fi adventure, Lightyear follows heroic Space Ranger, Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Chris Evans, replacing Tim Allen) who still talks and presents himself like a stoic 80’s action hero. Buzz, alongside his fellow Ranger, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), are marooned on a distant planet with 1200 other civilians. While the citizens aboard the ship known as “The Turnip” set up shop on the planet, Buzz and Alisha seek to create fuel crystals, which allow hyperspace travel. With each flight test Buzz takes, he feels a few minutes, whereas he actually travels four years. After numerous tests and decades of time lost, Buzz finally succeeds, only to return to the planet overrun by evil robots led by the evil, Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Buzz teams up with a ragtag group of rookies, Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules) to defeat the robots and use the fuel crystal to finally return home.
Director Angus MacLane infuses enough sense of adventure and exploration to match the film’s relatively large sense of scale. MacLane takes many cues from both Star Trek and Star Wars, also Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thankfully, Lightyear shares few traits from the Toy Story films, while staying true to the character audiences have grown to love for over 27 years. The animators at Pixar have, indeed, outdone themselves as Lightyear is one of their most beautifully rendered films. The animation is just stunning, with many photorealistic flourishes and subtle details that nearly make the image feel live-action at times. MacLane crafts a number of exciting sequences that are visually distinct and benefit from strong work from its voice cast.
Chris Evans is better-than-expected, effectively portraying a different, but familiar take on the role originated by Tim Allen. Evans wisely sidesteps a Tim Allen impression for something more natural, while maintaining the well-known characteristics of the beloved toy. Buzz’s trusty companion, Sox, the cat, sufficiently steals the movie. Voiced by Pixar director Peter Sohn, Sox is an advanced AI system that can solve scientific equations, while being your best feline friend. It’s a standout character, one that saves our hero on multiple occasions and loves belly rubs.
Lightyear finds the traditional Pixar formula in full-swing, down to the emotional crux dealing with a personal tragedy. If even Maclane and screenwriters Matthew Aldrich and Jason Headley do attempt to pluck at the heartstrings, it never comes close to the resonance of any Toy Story film. For its respectable share of big ideas, Lightyear is nowhere near as rich as the best of Pixar, or even the studio’s past three films — all of which aired solely on Disney Plus, not helping this film’s image of corporate cynicism. This film lacks the depth many other Pixar films have in spades, making this a disappointing shortcoming for an already solid film. That it could’ve been so much greater, casts a looming shadow.
If you were hoping for a film reminiscent of the opening sequence of Toy Story 2, fit with eccentric creativity and straight-faced satire, you will be severely disappointed. Buzz make speak like an action hero from the 80’s, but the film doesn’t operate on the same level. There is enough humor for younger viewers to stay engaged, but largely, the film serves as a straightforward sci-fi adventure. The introduction of famous arch-nemesis, Zurg, comes with wildly mixed results. There is one actively thrilling sequence between Buzz and Zurg in the last act, but a half-assed plot development with the character detracts from a potentially gripping twist.
Lightyear is by no means a top-tier outing from Pixar. However, it’s better than what its corporate branding background would suggest. This is a sci-fi blockbuster for the entire family that works on its own accord, despite the greatness that could have been.