Starring: Chris Evans (Knives Out), Keke Palmer (Hustlers), Peter Sohn (Monsters University), James Brolin (The Amityville Horror), Taika Waititi (Free Guy), Dale Soules (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black)
Director: Angus MacLane
Writers: Jason Headley (Onward) & Angus MacLane
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Release Date: 17th June (US, UK)
Synopsis: After getting them stranded on a hostile planet, headstrong Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear’s attempts to find a way for his colony to escape end up flinging him into the future, where he must team up with his best friend’s granddaughter to combat a mysterious technologically-advanced threat.
After seeing their last three features being relegated to a straight-to-Disney+ release (four if you count Onward, which only got a few weeks in theatres before COVID-19 cut its run short), it’s great to see Pixar finally return to the big screen, and what a more fitting happenstance that it’s with a character that helped put them on the map. The mythos of Buzz Lightyear has been explored before outside the main Toy Story films, most notably in the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command cartoon from the early 2000s, but now the animation studio that created him has come to reset the canon. As its opening title cards clarify, this is the movie that young Andy fell in love with and made him ask for the tie-in action figure for his birthday back in 1995, and you can understand why. Whilst it may lack the emotional depth and childhood relatability of the Toy Story films, Lightyear is an action-packed and imaginative sci-fi romp that will inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with the iconic character.
Right from the off, Lightyear feels very unlike anything else Pixar has ever made before. It tonally sits right on the line between space opera and hard science fiction, taking as much influence from the likes of Interstellar and Silent Running as it does from Star Wars or Lost in Space; it actually reminded me a lot of Mass Effect in its balance. While it works in plenty of family-friendly humour, it takes its world just seriously enough that you can invest in it and enjoy it as a story removed from its action figure origins, though it is still fun to see how they’ve reverse-engineered concepts from the toy back to their “inspiration”. The core themes aren’t exactly deep or profound enough to be considered brilliant sci-fi, instead simply using the tropes of the genre to impart Pixar’s typically earnest life messages; in this case, learning the value of teamwork, letting go of past mistakes, and simply living in the moment.
The story moves at a good pace whilst still taking some time to take it easy, there are a couple of really solid plot twists that keep things compelling, and it has a lot of great gags and even a tear-worthy moment or two. There’s nothing Lightyear does that’s especially wrong or any opportunities it seriously fails to take advantage of, but rather its biggest drawback is that it lacks a huge selling point; something it has that it can truly call its own. Nostalgia for the character may be what initially brings audience through the door, and the movie certainly has plenty of fan service ranging from obvious callbacks to deep-cut references for Pixar aficionados, but the “this is the fictional movie that inspired the toy” isn’t really enough of a revolutionary idea to support what is, whilst very fun and well-executed on all levels, a story that didn’t exactly demand to be told. To put it simply: it’s the Solo: A Star Wars Story of the Toy Story franchise.
We’ve seen actors take over an iconic role before, but never one quite like in Lightyear. The arrogant and self-righteous Buzz first voiced by Tim Allen audiences met in 1995 may have had the memories and knowledge of the “real” character, but that Buzz was just a toy imitation that broke out of his delusions and evolved into his character over four films and various spin-offs. Chris Evans’ task in inheriting the Space Ranger mantle is therefore made more treacherous, in that he has to imitate Allen enough that you can tell where the toy drew inspiration, but also flesh out and mould the character into more than just an action figure. Thankfully, Evans does a fantastic job on both counts and makes the role his own whilst still unmistakably being Buzz Lightyear. His brashness and tenacity remain intact, but this Buzz has an emotional nuance all his own as he obsesses over completing his mission whilst failing to make connections with the people around him. Whilst far from a revolutionary take on the hero’s journey, he absolutely makes for a compelling hero that kids will look up to, but parents may also seem themselves reflected in him, especially those who may feel life has slipped them by and missed out on the moments that mattered.
Whilst our titular lead does take up much of the spotlight, Lightyear also boasts an impressively likable supporting cast that are given a lot more free reign to define their characters. Keke Palmer makes for a delightful foil to Evans as his friend’s granddaughter Izzy, her blind optimism and crushing inexperience against Buzz’s entire persona. Taika Waititi is his usual lovably quirky self as the bumbling cadet Mo, whilst Dale Soules is consistently fun as the crochety ex-con Darby. Uzo Aduba’s role as Commander Alisha is brief but incredibly powerful and has a lasting impact throughout the film, though her LGBTQ+ status is once again a case where conservative media and homophobic governments have overblown a depiction of queer life that amounts to no more than a brief kiss. The less said about James Brolin’s turn as Zurg, the better. Being the only other character lifted from the Toy Story films, in contrast he is quite a far cry from his plastic counterpart but his reimagining is certainly compelling than just the obvious Darth Vader spoof he was in Toy Story 2. However, the film itself, and likely the hearts of many of its viewers, is stolen by the robotic cat Sox. Played with a wonderfully deadpan affect by Pixar creator Peter Sohn (who also voiced Emile in Ratatouille and Squishy in Monsters University), the character is equally cute and hilarious from the moment he springs to life and only gets funnier from there. From his matter-of-fact observations to how he adorably makes cat noises whilst performing certain tasks, he’s basically a more compact and feline version of Baymax from Big Hero 6. Quite ironically, I expect the best-selling toy from this movie inspired by a toy won’t be its decade-spanning title character, but his little ginger cat.
Where Lightyear really sets itself apart from its Pixar siblings is in its stunning visuals. Whilst it still retains a slightly caricaturised look for its human characters, they are rendered with a more photoreal finish than anything the studio has put out before, bringing to mind Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin whilst keeping it cartoony enough to comfortably avoid any dives into the uncanny valley. The way it contrasts the more grounded aesthetic of the human colony akin to The Martian against the far more fantastical design of Zurg and his robotic minions gives the world a more unique flavour than if it had been full-on space opera, and how it manages to translate the toyetic designs of the Space Ranger suits and their various gadgets into something that actually seems practical is a joy to behold. The alien world of T’Kani Prime itself is a little basic itself, mostly being a barren rock occasionally broken up by bits of jungle and the cityscape of the colony, and Zurg’s ship is a pretty standard evil spacecraft, but again there’s nothing inherently wrong with their designs other than they lack that final little touch of individuality. The film really shines on an audio level also, with not only fantastic sound design that includes recognisable noises from the toy but with a lifelike sheen, but also an incredible score from the always-reliable Michael Giacchino that elevates the whole experience to its lofty space-faring ambitions.
Lightyear completes its main objective in delivering an entertaining and expertly-crafted movie that stands alone from its Toy Story origins, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond that. It’s a worthwhile experience for the family on the big screen, whilst also showing a range in style and genre that Pixar has never quite explored in this way before; I’m really looking forward to seeing what Angus MacLane, who makes his feature directorial debut here, will do in the future. At the same time though, it can’t quite escape feeling like more of a corporate idea than a purely creative one, right down to how its breakout character Sox will inevitably join the likes of Baby Groot and Grogu amongst the cute plushies at your local Disney Store. Balancing those two sides out, it ends up somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Pixar catalogue, certainly well above the likes of the heavily-corporatized Cars franchise or troubled productions like Brave or The Good Dinosaur, but a far cry from the quality of any Toy Story adventure. It’s kind of ironic: what’s supposed to be the more grown-up movie that inspired the toy ends up being far less adult and mature than the movies about the actual toys.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10