For most people, Lightyear is destined to be merely the next film in the Pixar pantheon, a Buzz Lightyear prequel / solo film that is an excuse for Disney to trot out another Toy Story title and rake in an extra billion bucks or so off nostalgic parents and their wide-eyed children.
If that’s your threshold for success, you’ll likely be pleased with what you get. But looking a bit deeper, there are some issues among the winking ha-ha space adventure based on everyone’s favorite space ranger.
A brief prologue tells you how Pixar regards this movie: It’s the action-adventure film that, in the Toy Story mythos, Andy once watched that led to his infatuation with the Buzz character and led to him wanting the action figure we have all grown to know and love.
In that context, the film we are watching is meta on a different level. Sort of a reverse Threat Level Midnight in a sense — a film within a film that we never really knew existed (I was under the impression Buzz was based on a Star Command television cartoon), an anti-parody and an origin story of sorts.
The “real” Buzz is voiced by Chris Evans, a capable and less-cartoonish substitute for Tim Allen. In the world of this film, Buzz is a futuristic astronaut of sorts who crash-lands on a dangerous remote planet while trying to deliver a colony of scientists. Along with Alisha Hawthorne (a warm, resonant Uzo Aduba), Buzz hatches a plan to escape the planet and complete the mission, even as the scientists begin to establish a colony on this planet. To do so, Buzz must test pilot a power source for his spaceship to achieve warp speed.
But the problem is every time he tests the ship, only a few hours pass for him while years pass on the planet. With each attempt, Alisha and the rest of the colony age in spurts while he returns at a new life milestone. Finally, when he returns, Alisha is gone, and the colony is under attack by a mysterious force.
This is perhaps a bit complex as a setup for a Toy Story film, but the script does a good job of briefly, but definitively, explaining the concept. But in doing so (in a montage that smacks of Up), the film is forced to rush a few beats that could have established the Buzz / Alisha relationship a bit better, as well as a character with whom Buzz becomes acquainted as the movie progresses.
Ultimately, the film settles into a somewhat counterintuitive but nonetheless ambitious narrative about the dangers of becoming obsessed with following your dreams. Buzz is determined to rescue everyone but in the process misses out on experiences and friends that could have given him a long, healthy, happy life. Instead, the world learns to work without him and ultimately summons the danger that threatens their existence.
As a rollicking animated adventure, Lightyear is enjoyable if unspectacular, creating a predictably entertaining series of set-pieces that allows Buzz to be the action hero we’d suspect. His spacesuit is evocative of the action-figure version but isn’t an exact replica, which is a fun bit of movie-to-toy meta-ness (after all, few toys, especially in the 1990s, were totally accurate to the movies they represented). It never reaches the heights of, say, The Incredibles or even the other Toy Story films, but it’s still a fun enough time.
As a Disney / Pixar entry, it’s perhaps a bit less of a success, lacking the intangibles and heart of Monsters, Inc. or WALL-E, try as it may. The compressed narrative doesn’t really allow some of the characters to breathe, though Buzz’s robot-kitty companion, Sox, is certainly an addition in line with the best sidekicks Pixar has to offer.
But the ragtag supporting team is a little more hit-or-miss, a requisite misfit squad that muff their way to glory not unlike Jar Jar Binks did 23 years ago. Their jokes are less offensive, but generally not much funnier, than Ahmed Best’s infamous alien.
Oddly, perhaps even ironically, where Lightyear stumbles is in its adherence to franchise rules and its desire to be a modern Pixar film. Modern movie conventions, like two women marrying each other, are on full display (which certainly is welcome in a child’s film if you ask me), but it’s emblematic of this film’s artifice. If this is supposed to be a movie made in the 1990s, it should feel that way. Why the conceit of making it a ’90s movie without featuring their conventions? Amping up the kitsch would have been a welcome addition to this film, potentially making it funnier and setting up Buzz’s personality as a toy.
Lightyear is an oddly restrained film featuring a character whose lack of same is one of his more loved qualities. That’s not to say it’s bad or unworthy; it is mostly fun and entertaining, has a series of fun sequences, characters to love, and plot twists that are, if not in the least unique, still fun, and themes that seemingly run counter to time-honored dictates to never give up on your dreams. It absolutely brings an additional layer to the Toy Story franchise, honoring beloved characters and even extending their richness.
But with a few key narrative choices, it could have been even more. In baseball parlance, Lightyear is a ground-rule double that just missed clearing the fence. We will take the two-bagger, but man, what a longball it could have been.