It’s challenging to start the review with a big disclaimer: when Pixar films settle for the conventional, it strains their magnetic stature as a wondrous global phenomenon. And when stacking up Lightyear compared to Toy Story and its fantastic sequels, Up, WALL-E, Finding Nemo, and Coco, it slides down the ladder immediately to where Cars and The Good Dinosaur reside.
Granted, it does have a distinction: it’s Pixar’s first movie to revolve around Pixar’s favorite character in a film. In the original Toy Story, young boy Andy received a Buzz Lightyear toy gift that sparked jealously among the other toys due to his abilities and instant-classic catchphrase, “To infinity and beyond!” At the initiation of this feature, we learn in the opening minute that the toy was a part of promotional advertising for Andy’s favorite film.
It raises many questions in a neat bit of reverse engineering, but that’s a debate for another day. The movie gets into action immediately with a human Buzz Lightyear (voiced by the charming Chris Evans, who channels some of his Captain America’s spirit while preserving Tim Allen’s embodiment of the character) trying and failing to get a ship of an alien world. Everyone must learn to live and inhabit this dangerous world while Lightyear relentlessly pursues cracking a successful formula for hyper-speed. However, each test he runs takes four years regularly, so everyone ages each time while he does not. The audience witnesses an adroit montage of his space comrade, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), aging and progressing on in life with a family of hers while Lightyear continues to fly and fail.
Sixty-two years fly by, and Alisha has sadly passed away. One last attempt influenced his cute robotic cat, Sox (Peter Sohn), which puts Lightyear in conflict with his new superiors. Still, it does lead the protagonist to succeed in attaining hyper-speed. But, the new environment he stumbles into once he lands is not the same: an enemy ship under the control of Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his robot army are attempting to destroy Tikana Prime (where all civilization is stranded). Buzz must work with Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), naïve Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), and paroled convict Darby Steel (Dale Soules) to destroy the ship.
There are some genuine melancholy beats in the first and third acts and a good surprise or two in the third to keep things engaging. The overall picture is more about how the current adults cannot relinquish their childhood pop culture due to another spinoff in the everlasting, ambitious Disney empire. Watching money-grabbing, live remakes of select past animated classics continues to test our virtues and remembrance of the good old days. At least Lightyear doesn’t feel like Toy Story 5, but rather a spinoff that gives us more of a chance to reconcile with the animated space ranger and his tales outside of a child’s bedroom.
Despite the grandeur of the visuals and this movie’s cosmos, it’s almost derivative enough to trigger memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and Star Wars 7. And then keeping along with one of Pixar’s thematic formulas, such as witnessed in The Incredibles and Inside Out, it reminds us a true hero relinquishes control and ego and respects the values of others. Screenwriters Jason Headley and Angus MacLane have to chalk up nostalgia with something new, but it isn’t easy to sell us at the moment when most scenes settle for less.
Lightyear renders out to something less captivating compared to Pixar’s best. When Pixar attempts the risk, it pays off spectacularly. Here, director Angus MacLane flumps into a story barely enough to get through an afternoon.
At least the cast, visuals, and nary sense of fun keep Lightyear soaring in a comfortable direction; though, having more temptation to wager with a titillating narrative could’ve kept Pixar from breaking its streak as it did with Cars 2 back in 2011.