In 1995, Pixar’s first film, Toy Story, tapped into the imaginations of filmgoers young and old through an adventurous animated story of friendship told from the perspective of toys, specifically, a group of toys owned by a young boy, Andy (John Morris), whose leader, Woody (Tom Hanks), had to learn to contend with new arrival (and supposed favorite) Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). The rise, fall, and rise again of Woody and Buzz’s friendship inspired three more tales that explored the pain and freedom of growing up, yet, there appeared to be a question lingering in the minds of the creatives at Pixar since 1995: what was the film that inspired Buzz to be made in the first place? With this concept in mind, director/co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) and co-writer Jason Headley (Onward) conceived Lightyear, the latest Pixar film which dares to bring to life the very film that Andy saw in 1995 that made him a Buzz Lightyear fan. The story that MacLane and Headley crafted is a love letter to sci-fi cinema, an homage to the films of the ‘90s and before, creating an adventure that’s, in essence, Andy’s version of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) or The Last Starfighter (1984), films which place the audience right in the thick of the action while offering a lesson on personal responsibility and growth. Lightyear may be too tethered to Toy Story to be truly its own thing, but it’s bound to offer an exciting family adventure at the theater.
Enroute back to Earth from their latest mission, Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and Space Ranger Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the scientists and technicians on board their ship. Awoken by a sensor indicating a nearby unexplored planet, T’Kani Prime, Buzz decides to veer from their course to investigate. When the environment proves dangerous, Lightyear and Hawthorne try to escape, but things go badly, leaving them all stranded. Determined to finish the mission, Lightyear works with the scientists to test new fuel materials, while Hawthorne leads the crew to establish a home. With each trip to space to attempt hyper speed travel, Buzz finds himself losing four years with his team, yet doubles down and continues to test out each new fuel variant. That is, until something goes wrong and Buzz finds himself having gone from bad to worse. Can he finish the mission? Or will Lightyear never give up, never surrender?
MacLane and Headley perfectly capture the awe and inspiration of space travel. The idea that there are worlds out there past what we know now and that humanity possesses the means to discovering them all one day. This positivity flows throughout Lightyear, even in its darkest moments, whether through trials of self or opponent. Part of how this comes through is the production design from John Duncan (Star Wars) and the artistic design that follows throughout the film. According to the production notes accompanying Lightyear, Duncan was brought in specifically due to his prior experience working with physical models so that he could design live-action props from which the CG would be built. This then gets taken further into the artistic design from the characters and their clothes, down to the smallest details, to ensure that everything possesses a tangible quality. Due to this, there’s an advanced quality about Lightyear (not in the sense that it’s nearly 20 years more technologically evolved than Toy Story) that sparks the imagination the same way other live-action sci-fi adventures did for audiences past. Sharp-eyed viewers won’t just see references to Star Wars, but 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and more. In capturing that awe, Lightyear remains an engaging watch even when the thrusters misfire.
These misfires occur due to one of two things: a heavy-handed character arc exploring personal responsibility and Lightyear’s ancestral relationship to Toy Story. The first starts in the very beginning when Lightyear makes it clear that he either works best with Hawthorne or alone, though mostly alone. It’s not that he doesn’t trust others, it’s that he doesn’t trust others to get things right like he will. This makes the whole of Lightyear about the man learning and reframing how he views his capabilities and, thus, his pride. It’s an admirable theme as, especially now, the global community could use a bit more collectivism and less individualism in their operating procedures. The issue is, that for the bulk of the run-time, events occur which continually hammer to the audience just how much Lightyear is a man filled with pride and who is unable to allow his perception of responsibility to see what “is” versus what “could be.” Frankly, the use of time dilation (the fact that he loses four years for every hyper speed test) is a brilliant way to physically express the alienation and emotional distance between Lightyear and everyone else as, to him, it’s only been a year or two (how long is unclear) since the initial crash, whereas even time passed on T’Kani Prime for Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) to grow up into a self-proclaimed Junior Zap Patrol member. Like Flash Gordon (1980) or Planet of the Apes (1968), Lightyear is turned from a man of the future into a man of the past, something which he cannot jive with, only seeing the mission, only seeing his mistakes and not the possibilities. Again, this is a noble character arc, but it gets blasted over our heads so frequently that the audience gets it long before Lightyear does.
The other is the requirement to make Lightyear connect with the Toy Story films, especially the first one. It’s hilarious that Lightyear records logs that, according to Hawthorne, “no one listens to” because our first meeting with Buzz he does the same. It’s also easy to see how Lightyear is so reluctant to see the truth of his situation given how long it took for Buzz to do the same. The trick is that we know so much about Buzz the toy and his character’s backstory that the film has to bend itself to set these things up. In effect, the chicken has set the stage for the egg and now the egg has to be developed into the egg previously to form the chicken. (It’s sci-fi, roll with the analogy.) Though this means that there are several things that the film must set up, it doesn’t entirely follow what we know/expect, leading to a few clever jokes and surprises.
Let’s be clear, though, there are aspects of Lightyear that are exceptional in their visual style and execution. One moment quite literally made me queasy from the sheer vastness of space, while the other was opulent with color. There’s smartly designed action, heartfelt drama, and some solid comedy (whether you can see it coming or not) that makes up for the shortcomings. In the screening set up by Walt Disney, myself and a handful of critics enjoyed the film in RPX with only one child (a guest) in attendance. Said child appeared to have had a blast, as full of energy after the film as before it. That should tell you all you need to know as Lightyear is supposed to be *Andy’s* favorite movie, not Andy’s parents. I mean, I dig a wild space adventure as much as the next adult nerd, but let’s be clear who this film is for. Anecdotally speaking, I do think seeing the film in RPX did assist with the majesty of the experience, at least for me. The screen’s larger and the sound is designed differently than a normal Regal theater room, so while not IMAX, it was easier to be hit with the sense of scale that MacLane intends in the design of T’Kani Prime, its inhabitants (native and immigrant), as well as Zerg (voiced by James Brolin) and his advanced tech. So when space is featured as an all-encompassing entity, the extra inches on the screen certainly helped trick my brain into panic mode at the disorientation. For clarification’s sake, RPX is not the same as Regal’s 4DX, which makes the movie-going experience a literal rollercoaster ride. If you want to know what it’s really like to travel with Lightyear, then you may want to shell out the coin for 4DX, but the more economical choice of a standard theater will likely be just fine in providing a memorable adventure for the Andys in the audience.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention before wrapping this review that the vocal cast is on it. Evans brings his own spin to the “original” Buzz Lightyear that stands out from Allen, Aduba is a delight as Lightyear’s best friend and commander, and Palmer offers an enthusiastic optimism that creates a lovely familial bridge between her Izzy and Aduba’s Hawthorne. Of course, no review would be complete without singing the praises of Peter Sohn (Monster University) as Sox, the robotic therapy cat assigned to Buzz after his first failed test flight. It helps that the texturing on Sox makes you want to give the little dude a nice belly rub, but Sohn transforms Sox from narrative omni-tool into a bonafide member of the Lightyear Team. Luckily for audiences, none of us have to get stranded on a distant planet with advanced tech to join up with Buzz Lightyear, we need only hit the nearest ticket booth and slide into our assigned seat before the countdown to infinity begins. But will you go beyond? That’s for sure up to the adventurer.
In theaters June 17th, 2022.
For more information, head to Walt Disney Studios/Pixar’s Lightyear webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.