Pixar has been in the feature film business for over a quarter century now, and despite numerous successes over the years, it’s their first movie that has arguably made the biggest mark on pop culture. Toy Story premiered in 1995 and was followed by three blockbuster sequels, critical acclaim, a mountain of merchandise, a spin-off, a series, and more. After sending three films with original, exciting ideas and characters straight to streaming, this year sees Pixar jump back into theaters and back into the Toy Story well in a somewhat interesting way — Lightyear is an intergalactic adventure featuring Buzz Lightyear the man, not Buzz Lightyear the toy.
It’s the future, and humankind has sent hundreds of colonists deep into space looking for a new home. An SOS beacon from a previously unknown planet wakes one of the Space Rangers watching over them from cryo-sleep, and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) decides to investigate. He’s joined by his commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), but Buzz’s piloting skills stumble stranding all of them on the planet. Angry and feeling responsible, Buzz attempts a series of hyperspace jump tests that continue to fail. While each jump takes Buzz a few hours, though, those on the planet have seen four years pass. They’ve built lives, families, and a society while Buzz remains focused solely on proving himself capable of saving everyone, but what if he’s the one who needs saving?
“In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” So goes the onscreen text that opens Lightyear, and while it hardly seems likely that a CG animated film from 1995 would look this visually impressive, the stage is set for an origin story of sorts for one of Toy Story‘s lead characters. After sending three films featuring original stories, fresh characters, and previously untouched themes and ideas straight to streaming debuts, Pixar’s decision to afford Lightyear a theatrical release is slap in the face to the creativity, spirit, and beauty evident in Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022). Viewed apart from that unfortunate business decision, though, Pixar’s latest is an entertaining enough adventure with derivative ideas and redundant themes.
Part of Lightyear‘s limitations comes as an origin story to a character we already know well enough via the Toy Story films. Yes, this Buzz is a movie character the toy is based on, but rather than let him be his own person his challenges and desires remain the same. He sees himself as a hero, and he doesn’t need the help of others. That conflict is established early on, but the film (written by director Angus MacLane and Jason Headley) holds tight to it through the bulk of a running time that sees Buzz learn his lesson, forget it, and learn it again more than once. Evans does good work voicing Buzz with just the right mix of determined heroism and self-doubt, but let’s be honest… Buzz has never been the most interesting character.
Lucky for Lightyear then that the supporting players manage a bit better when it comes to personality and charm. Alisha is a compassionate friend to Buzz and becomes the source of the film’s biggest and most effective emotional beat. It’s a transition handled by way of montage, something Pixar has shown a firm grip on previously, and it’s executed with both grace and beauty. The remainder of the film never reaches that emotional high again, but there’s fun to be had with the characters and adventures that follow.
Izzy (Keke Palmer) is Alisha’s granddaughter, and while she’s saddled by her own doubts and struggles she’s a burst of personality that balances out Buzz’s flatter, more stoic (by design) nature. She comes with two friends of her own in part-time adventurer Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and octogenarian “ex-con” Darby Steel (Dale Soules), but the character who steals the film isn’t human at all. Sox the Cat (Peter Sohn) is a robotic feline given to Buzz, and he’s responsible for the vast majority of the film’s laughs. There are some very funny gags involving the robo-cat, and it’s enough to make you wonder why 1995’s Andy didn’t want a Sox doll too…
Not to harp on it, but unlike Pixar’s previous three films — seriously, Soul, Luca, and Turning Red deserve theatrical screenings — the ideas at play in Lightyear, from the themes to the characters themselves, are all competently executed but woefully uninspired. Movies are manipulative by their very nature, but this feels like a story designed off a checklist rather than one told from the heart because it needs to be told. We’ve seen Buzz learn to be part of a team already, but here we see it all over again. There’s obviously a bit more to it than that here, but a flashy new paint job can’t hide the very familiar bones beneath.
That said, Lightyear delivers some pretty good flash with plenty of action and fast-moving parts. Kids will absolutely eat it up thanks to its energy, humor, and callbacks to a character they already love, and its derivative nature isn’t enough to drown out the fun. The sci-fi trappings are well-crafted, and the action involving spaceships, aggressive vegetation, robots, and Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) is more than enough to hold the attention and elicit some thrills. MacLane has been with Pixar since the underappreciated A Bug’s Life (1998) and worked on all three Toy Story sequels, and he shows a keen handle on imagery and momentum.
Is it believable that a kid would have picked this as his favorite movie of 1995? The same year that saw films like Batman Forever, Jumanji, and Showgirls? Probably not, but Lightyear‘s prediction regarding the future of sandwiches is equally far-fetched. Still, if this is what Pixar can accomplish without really stretching its creative or emotional talents, just imagine what they could do if they gave it their all. I kid, you don’t have to imagine — just go watch Soul, Luca, and Turning Red.
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