The Toy Story spinoff balances humor, heart, action, and a little existential dread in a sci-fi adventure for all ages.
A movie based on Buzz Lightyear seemed inevitable, didn’t it? Toy Story is Pixar’s flagship franchise, and an action-packed sci-fi movie is primed for merchandising opportunities. There’s no way The Mouse could resist making a spin-off featuring the beloved fictional action figure.
Fortunately, director Angus MacLane, who co-wrote the script with Jason Headly, eschews a cash-grab to create a movie that’s worthy of Toy Story’s legacy. Lightyear is a joy, the type of blockbuster that grabs you from its opening shot and holds on until the end credits.
For those wondering how Lightyear fits in with the rest of the franchise: the film opens with a title crawl stating that this is the movie that Andy watched in 1995 that made him want a Buzz Lightyear action figure, thus sparking the events of the first film. Aside from that opening and a few lines of referential dialogue, Lightyear is unconnected to the rest of the movies and the Buzz Lightyear cartoon series of the early 2000s.
However, while Lightyear is supposed to be an in-universe introduction to the character, it is not an origin story. From the beginning, Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is an accomplished space ranger on a mission to scout out habitable planets with his partner Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) as well as a large crew of scientists and military personnel. However, when an exploratory mission goes awry, Buzz ends up crashing the space vessel and destroying the fuel that enables interstellar travel, leaving them marooned on a planet far from the rest of Star Command.
Desperate to fix his mistake, Buzz makes a series of test flights around the planet’s sun to see if the replacement fuel is stable enough to go into hyperspace. But due to the nature of hyperspace, the four-minute test flight in space equals four years on home base. So with each failed test flight, Buzz watches his friends grow older and older while he remains roughly the same age.
If this seems a little existential for a kid’s space movie, it’s actually on-brand for the franchise as a whole. Accepting change as the world moves on without you is the core theme of Toy Story, and Lightyear manages to integrate it into the story seamlessly.
And it’s not like the story dwells too long on the sadness of watching your friends grow old and die as you fail at bringing them home. Eventually, Buzz manages to reach hyperspace but his return to the planet isn’t a triumphant one. When he lands, he finds himself under attack from robots who serve a mysterious alien called “Zurg” (James Brolin). With his old crew long dead, he teams up with Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) and a ragtag crew of Star Command Reserves to save the planet.
From here Lightyear follows a more conventional Disney action formula as we’re given a series of thrilling set-pieces interspersed with some goofy comedy. MacLane and Headly manage to pack in some great action scenes, from robot battles and disastrous spacewalks to a chase through a terrain of volcanic chimneys, without feeling tedious or too breakneck.
Lightyear is a joy, the type of blockbuster that grabs you from its opening shot and holds on until the end credits.
Even more impressive is the fact that they were able to write three comedic relief characters without any of them becoming annoying. Joining Buzz and Izzy on their quest are Sox (Peter Sohn), a robotic “therapy cat” given to Buzz by Alisha; Darby (Dale Soules) a convict who joined reserved Star Command as community service, and Mo (Taika Waititi), a klutz who joined the reserves because he thought it was a fitness boot camp.
Waititi brings his trademark awkward quirkiness to Mo, and while he definitely brings in the laughs, his humor is hampered a bit by a running gag involving a pen that’s run into the ground. More refreshing are Sohn and Soules. Sohn gives Sox a personality that is a mix of robotic and feline, creating an odd, somewhat deadpan character who is both cute enough to sell millions of toys while being funny enough not to be annoying. Soules’ Darby is violent and hedonistic (in a kid-friendly way) with her obsession with explosives, but is still endearing enough to root for.
Evans and Palmer are no slouches either. Evan’s performance is his own, but he still matches the melodrama of Toy Story’s Buzz as well as mimicking Tim Allen’s vocal cadence. It’s a more serious take on the character, but it still fits with his established personality. Palmer’s Izzy is full of youthful exuberance with a mix of nerves that makes you want to see her succeed.
But if anything is the star of Lightyear, it’s the experience of the movie itself. The visuals are stunning: lush and detailed, with particular attention to the beauty of space. My screening was in the Dolby Cinema format, and the inclusion of the Dolby Atmos surround sound created a sense of pure immersion. There are some movies that just need to be seen on the big screen, and Lightyear is one of them.
The only part of the movie that doesn’t feel as immersive is the conceit that this was a film that was released in 1995. Not only are the visuals obviously better than what the mid-nineties could supply, the plot itself, with its focus on more existential themes (albeit simplified) and more nuanced treatment of Zurg, is 21st-century storytelling. And, of course, the fact that Alisha is an out lesbian who marries a woman (who she kisses on-screen) wouldn’t fly in a kid’s film 5 years ago, let alone 27.
But that is nit-picking; obviously, a film released in 2022 will want to appeal to 2022 audiences. Still, when the film opens by saying Lightyear is Andy’s favorite film, I can believe it. I’m sure it’ll be true of a bunch of boys and girls who watch it.
Lightyear comes to theaters and beyond June 17th.