If Pixar came out with a straight-up science fiction adventure film, there’s no reason anyone would object to this. The studio has proven itself to be full of imagination. Why not see it take on the notion of a blockbuster film filtered through their lens, which puts an extra focus on artistic craft and emotional value. Lightyear essentially functions like this, but the matter is complicated by its association with the Toy Story brand. Serving as a way to extend the profitability of one major Pixar franchise may seem like a cash-grab to adults, let alone confusing as far as how this film can exist in that universe. With that in mind, the people who really don’t care are kids. This doesn’t discount the look of Pixar cashing on one of its most popular characters, but there really isn’t too much overlap when it comes to seeing a slick sci-fi flick from a studio that tends to deliver.
The concept is pretty simple. As it turns out, the Buzz Lightyear toy is based on the lead character of Andy’s favorite movie. That said, there’s no need to see young Andy from Toy Story head into a theater to watch his version of Star Wars. Instead, we simply watch the movie Lightyear, which focuses on a Space Ranger (Chris Evans) who unfortunately maroons himself, his commander (Uzo Aduba), and their crew on a hostile planet 4.2 million light-years from Earth. In his attempts to find a way back home, Buzz winds up sending himself through space and time, eventually teaming up with newer recruits, and facing off against the nefarious Zurg and his army of robots.
Getting past the setup (which is really not that hard if you consider Disney already made 2000’s Buzz Lightyear of Star Command animated series), it’s interesting to look at this noble effort to deliver a 90s sci-fi blockbuster. It also further suggests how much of a fantasy world Toy Story exists in, as their version of 90s space flicks are progressive enough to feature multiple persons of color, let alone individuals on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, with no emphasis placed on it. That’s nice for a 2022 Pixar film but notable for that time. That said, since the Pixar universe will one day implode, and only sentient cars will be left, I’m not sure which timeline I’m supposed to prefer.
Regardless, looking at Lightyear, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Referencing everything from the Toy Story films to Star Wars to Star Trek to even 1998’s Lost in Space, a whole lot of care went into making a movie that evokes the sci-fi films director/co-writer Angus MacLane grew up watching. With that in mind, I was happy to see some fresh ideas come from the plot setup and the functions Space Rangers have. We see lots of practical equipment introduced early on and given new implementations throughout. It all ends up feeling quite clever. Yes, there’s an air of predictability to some of this, but it hardly affected how I was taking in the sense of adventure this film wants the audience to go on.
The capable cast and those interactions add to that feeling of wonder. Given that this is a younger Buzz with room for growth, regardless of whether or not other reasons played a role, Evans does well as the straight-laced character who gets in over his head at various times. While there have been optics to consider as far as Lightyear (starring a straight, white man) being the Pixar film deemed “good enough” by Disney to be released in theaters compared to the free Disney+ releases of Soul, Luca, and Turning Red (pandemic notwithstanding), this is a film that surrounds Buzz with very likable, diverse individuals.
Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, and Dale Soules provide the voices of the recruits Buzz must team up with. This is a fun, rag-tag collection of people who learn how to be better Space Rangers. Since this is a family-friendly Pixar film, for all the excitement that comes from spaceship chases and alien bug-related action scenes, there are plenty of zingers, clever exchanges, and more to reflect the witty script. And, sorry to bury the lead, but animater Peter Sohn once steps up to provide a voice for Sox, a robotic cat and companion for Buzz. Suffice it to say, Sox would be the toy every kid would have wanted after this film, not a Buzz Lightyear. His interactions with the cast are consistently hysterical and really adds an extra level to an already capable animated feature.
Not to be undersung, there is also the emotional component that has become typical for Pixar. This is where Uzo Aduba comes into play, as the film allows us to see the friendship and respect between her and Buzz early on, only to deliver a heartbreaking montage featuring those characters on different cycles of time. Again, the hardly emphasized additional layer added to Aduba’s character concerning her choice of partner is a nice step to have taken, but having a film that can so quickly get us behind her and Buzz as people who trust each other is solid work.
Using that to explore who Buzz is at this time is also interesting. Evans was apparently the only choice when considering who to take on this iconic role (who was more than successfully handled by Allen in each Toy Story film). I appreciate that a challenge was created for both Evans to convey enough about Buzz and the creatives to deliver a character complex enough that he could be deemed selfish and unlikable were he not handled with the right kind of care. Yes, Buzz always needs to complete his mission and knows his strengths, but Lightyear finds interesting ways to test this, even if the solutions are relatively simple (Hint: teamwork makes the dream work).
For all that works, the things holding this film back come down to ambition. I don’t enjoy questions like “who is this for” or “was anyone asking for this” but looking at Lightyear as a whole, it’s a film that only extends its arms so far when considering the animation boundaries broken by this studio. Sure, not every Pixar production needs to be a new modern classic, but I do get the sense that Lightyear is not exactly going to occupy too much space in my mind in the weeks to come. As it stands, the film is a fun entry in the Pixar canon, if inessential overall.
The fun is a big part of the point, however, and Lightyear delivers on it without wasting any time. This is an enjoyable film that looks and sounds great. Pixar wanted to deliver something akin to a wild space opera, and it has done so. I enjoyed this exciting twist on the character as far as the world it chose to open up. I don’t know what Andy’s up to these days (probably something boring, as Sid from next door was far more creative), but I can see how a younger version of him would have been swept up in this space odyssey.