Animation Movies Reviews Sci-Fi

Review: ‘Lightyear’ Barely Makes Orbit Despite a Gorgeous Takeoff

For months, jokes came in from every corner of the internet. Disney and Pixar had made one of the safest bets imaginable, spinning off Toy Story star Buzz Lightyear into his own film. With a new cast, headlined by Chris Evans, there was no doubt a future hit was in store for the animation powerhouse. However, shortly after the announcement, Evans sent out one of the most bizarre tweets imaginable. Evans explained, “this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.” Luckily, Evans’ description ended up being something of a half-truth. Pixar’s Lightyear takes a different route, portraying itself as the film that Andy watched in 1995 and inspired the toy line. Unfortunately, while the film may have inspired Andy, a few putters and missteps leave Lightyear feeling uninspired despite some spectacular visuals.

This story of Buzz (Evans) drops the toy act and takes us straight to the Space Ranger exploring the galaxy. When his ship lands on a potential base planet for human operations, Buzz and partner Alisha (Uzo Aduba) set out to ensure it is safe. However, when their ship cannot take off, they are marooned on the planet with a team of scientists. Working together, they find a potential fuel source to get home. However, when Buzz tests the fuel, he finds minutes in his ship result in years passing for those on the planet. The problems only worsen when a robot army controlled by the mysterious Zurg (James Brolin) arrives.

Director Angus MacLane takes the helm for his second Pixar feature, following his co-direction credit on Finding Dory in 2016. However, his three short projects dealt with the enormity of space (Burn-E) or Buzz Lightyear directly (Toy Story of Terror & Small Fry). An obvious steward for established Pixar properties, MacLane takes some big swings visually, and they mostly pay out.

The scale and grandiosity of Lightyear are never in doubt. The visuals harken back to established Sci-Fi classics but maximize the sound and color spectrum available. MacLane also directs the action sequences extremely well, allowing the audience to track the heroes flying through the screen and reminding us of the dangers that await them. You will believe that being a Space Ranger means taking genuine death-defying risks.

The film’s star, Evans, adds his own textured vocal performance to the film. There’s quite a bit of Captain America’s pluckiness, even though the character showcases more selfish traits. However, Evans also adds a warmth that was missing from the first Buzz audiences met. There’s genuine empathy and selflessness, replacing some of the arrogance in Tim Allen’s depiction of the character. For this film, Evans’ approach becomes necessary, where Allen was forced to play the heel to Tom Hanks. How Evans develops, the character going forward will certainly be interesting, as there are avenues to take for future installments.

MacLane and co-writers Jason HeadleyMatthew Aldrich also establish a unique team throughout the film. Alisha’s skills are instantly recognizable and often overshadow Buzz’s physical ability. Yet the ragtag group that eventually joins Buzz cultivates comedic and familial chemistry. Izzy (Keke Palmer) brings a hopeful ignorance that supplies the film with its heart. There will not be a funnier character in a film in 2022 than SOX (Peter Sohn), who outright steals this movie in every scene. Darby (Dale Soules) and Mo (Taika Waititi) each get fun arcs and moments to shine, primarily serving as comedic relief. The ensemble approach harkens back to Toy Story but also helps flesh out this version of Buzz.

While the visuals and characters are engaging, Lightyear struggles with telling the audience anything new. As much a “re-quel” as Jurassic World or Top Gun, Lightyear plays many of the greatest hits that helped us fall in love with the toy. This makes sense given the film’s logic, yet it still feels cheap in 2022. However, there are enough twists that also break the continuity of the Toy Story franchise, especially regarding this depiction of Zurg.

Additionally, Lightyear provides us the bare minimum of LGBTQ+ representation, and the fact that Pixar had to fight to get this into the film speaks to a toxic corporate culture. While Disney’s reinsertion of the moment will cost them some box office, we should also not celebrate them for barely including a moment essential to understanding crucial aspects of several characters in the film. Once again, Disney wants to receive credit when they could do more in this arena.

In many ways, MacLane’s creative involvement in Finding Dory provides the best guide towards understanding this movie. There are plenty of call-backs, and the film does not ruin anyone’s childhood. Yet it also feels like a cash grab, leaving us with little reason to care about this character without our decades-long relationship with the toy version. The story has some high points but rarely exceeds the minimum storytelling needs. While Lightyear could have been one giant step for Pixar, it instead feels like an obligation to ensure Disney meets the bottom line.

Alan’s Grade: 7/10

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