It’s been nearly 25 years since the first Toy Story film came out. It revolutionized animated films, introduced the world to the power of Pixar, and made cultural icons out of its characters, perhaps most of all to space ranger Buzz Lightyear. Buzz has had his own 2D animated spinoff detailing his adventures, but we’ve yet to see a definitive origin story for the character until now. That gap is meant to be filled in with Lightyear, a relatively amusing film that works better as a metatextual framing device than it does as a strict narrative.
The film starts with a title card letting us know that the film we’re about to watch was a favorite of Toy Story‘s Andy and the inspiration for the Buzz Lightyear toy. Buzz himself (Chris Evans) is part of an exploration team on the planet Tikana Prime. When trying to pilot an escape from the hostile life on the planet, Buzz makes a miscalculation and ends up getting himself and over a thousand others on his ship stranded. Desperate to correct his mistake, he repeatedly tests out an experimental hyperdrive that ends up shunting him decades forward into the future. When he returns, his comrades have developed a colony on the planet and are under attack from the evil alien warlord Zurg.
The basic conceit of Lightyear is relatively high-concept in both a story and a real-world way. The story itself doesn’t have a lot of narrative complexity but does introduce a host of rather complicated character beats that it doesn’t always explore to their full potential. In a metatextual way, though…hoo boy. It’s complicated.
Let’s see if we can break this down. Lightyear, the movie we’re seeing in the theatre, is meant to be a live-action blockbuster sci-fi film in the Toy Story-verse, typical of one we’d see in the late 80s or early 90s. It definitely has the right feel, from its clumsy flirtation with quantum physics to its tendency to save budget by staging most of its action indoors or on a desolate planet surface. This film was meant to inspire the Buzz Lightyear cartoon, which smoothed out and simplified the character for children. That in turn ends up inspiring the toy that Andy comes to know and love and would explain why the Buzz in the Toy Story films doesn’t bring up his adventures in Lightyear or have the same voice: he’s based on the Buzz from the cartoon, not the film.
This was, believe it or not, a relatively common occurrence back in the day. Ghostbusters, Rambo, and Robocop all had kid-friendly animated shows that ended up spawning a line of merchandise based on those shows. Frankly, the context of Lightyear‘s existence involves more expertly-performed flips and twists than an Olympic gymnast’s floor routine. As a connoisseur of pop culture myself, I am left a little bit in awe of the construction of this film’s conception.
However, as a student and critic of film, I am left more than a little underwhelmed by the story contained within. There is honestly nothing surprising or innovative in Lightyear‘s narrative or character arcs. Buzz starts out as a bit arrogant and self-important, with a hero complex that’s a flaw more than it is an asset. He has to learn humility and to let go of perfection through his interaction with a scrappy group of newbies that have more heart than they do skill. This is all pretty much telegraphed in the opening scene where he lets his ego get in the way of his mission and dismisses the help of the rookie he’s reluctantly paired with. If you’ve seen any animated film in the last 20 years, you know exactly where this story is going.
Credit must go to director/co-writer Angus MacLane for at least making everything on the screen seem sincere and trying to inject genuine emotion into the film. He has a difficult task, however, since he’s going up not just against decades of sci-fi and animation tropes but also Pixar’s own stellar track record in wringing every last drop of feels out of the audience. The first act is dominated by Buzz’s repeated attempts to make the experimental hyperdrive work, but due to time dilation, four years pass on the planet for every four minute trip he takes. We see his friends grow older, establish families, and even pass away as Buzz keeps trying to finally make a successful flight. It’s touching, and it’s clear from what we’re seeing that Buzz is tortured by his failure to correct his mistake and the pain of seeing his friends’ lives fly by. However, it also brings immediate comparisons of the opening montage of Up, which still manages to be one of Pixar’s most heart-wrenching moments of all time and which Lightyear can only aspire to stand in the shadow of.
Despite the narrative’s shortcomings, however, there is still quite a bit in Lightyear to recommend. The animation is pristine, as would be expected, and the level of detail is impressive. Textures often seem photorealistic, and the attention to things like the stains and dents in Buzz’s space ranger armor after decades of disuse give the film a remarkably tactile vibe. MacLean also knows how to stage his action, as well, and each fight is full of excitement. Even quieter action scenes, like one where a character is floating through space, are injected with an undertone of drama and tension.
It’s the voice acting that really sells the film beyond its flaws and shortcomings, though. Chris Evans is pretty much perfect casting for Buzz Lightyear. A self-professed Disney fan himself, his take on Buzz is respectful to Tim Allen’s iconic work while also putting his own stamp on the character. Again, this is not the same Buzz as the toy or the cartoon the toy comes from, so Evans’ subtler, more nuanced take on the role is much appreciated. In-universe, Lightyear is supposed to be a sci-fi actioner first, a comedy second, and Evans’ more serious performance fits perfectly into that energy.
Evans’ supporting cast does a great job, too. His misfit crew includes Keke Palmer as the granddaughter of his old commander, Taika Waititi as a naive wannabe, and Dale Soules as an elderly convict who loves to blow things up. Each actor infuses their character with the right combination of personality and verve to make them stand out, although Soules probably makes the best impression. The most notable voice work, however, belongs to Peter Sohn as Sox, Buzz’s feline robotic companion. Sohn’s deadpan delivery gives rise to the film’s funniest moments, and Sox itself is an adorably-designed character.
There are a lot of moments in Lightyear that make me want to praise it, such as the matter-of-fact way it handles the relationship between Buzz’s commander and her wife. But there are also just as many that make me want to criticize it, like how some of the plot twists make no sense and have no context or how it explains Zurg’s origin. It sometimes feels like the creative team was aiming high but settling lower, and it all shakes out somewhere in the middle. While the story might not be terribly surprising, a uniformly talented voice cast and some stellar animation help get Lightyear off the ground and into the skies. If only it could have flown just a little bit higher.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-