Lightyear takes inspiration from the space exploration pictures of the 70s and 80s to craft a colorfully animated yet narratively faulty romp of the famed space ranger.
“To Infinity and Beyond!” That’s one of the phrases that shaped my childhood. When I was a kid, one of the films I watched over and over, other than Jurassic Park, was Toy Story (particularly the second installment). Those classic characters were a crucial part of my youth; I had the toys, dressed up as Woody one Halloween, and had the films on VHS – including the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins spinoff film. All the characters from this enchanting, animated franchise (Bullseye, Jessie, Rex, Slinky, etc) impacted many kids from across the world, and to this day, I think they still do. They are too memorable to forget, and everyone loves them. Last year, it was announced that there would be a self-titled Buzz Lightyear film starring Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Although I was pretty excited, being a fan of the toys for almost my entire life, skepticism was running through my mind because of the reasoning behind its existence.
Lightyear is the movie that inspired the creation of the titular toy that Andy bought back in 1995. This sparked his imagination as a kid; that’s why he was so excited to have that toy in the franchise’s first installment. To put it in simpler terms, Lightyear is for Andy what Star Wars was to the young 70s generation, hence Buzz being his Luke Skywalker and Zurg the equivalent of Darth Vader. My skepticism arose from this particular scenario. Because of these specifications, many people were confused about how everything would be crafted since there was a bit of backstory provided in the Toy Story movies and the animated spin-off picture. One of the reasons this confusion arose is because, just by looking at the trailer, the film didn’t look like a sci-fi movie that was crafted in the 80s or 90s, even if it references plenty of them.
In addition, the characters we see in Lightyear have never been made into toys in the Toy Story universe. This is the definitive origin story of the hero who inspired the toy. What people saw on Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins isn’t canon to his origin story. Nevertheless, after seeing the movie, I can say that I had nothing to worry about regarding those initial concerns. Lightyear is primarily enjoyable and colorfully animated (you can’t expect less from such a studio like Pixar), albeit the faults that it contains revolve more around its narrative, logic, and structure. The film begins with a quick explanation of its origin story – saying that this is the film that Andy loved and made him ache for the Buzz action figure – before transitioning into an Alien-esque introduction. This is the first of many references to sci-fi blockbusters of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
The insides of the ship and its aesthetics look like the Nostromo, and there are stills similar to those in Prometheus and Alien. When I started noticing these similarities early in the movie, my pre-viewing skepticism started disappearing. Buzz’s ship accidentally crashes on an alienated planet and destroys their lightyear speed crystal, so the crew on board can’t make it out. So, what’s their new mission? Do test runs of different speed crystal mixtures, albeit with some Interstellar-esque repercussions that they don’t expect initially – time travel is at play here. Finally, after many years and trials, sixty-two years to be specific, Buzz’s companion, Sox (Peter Sohn), cracks down a formula that can finally get them home. The narrative has some twists and turns that you don’t expect yet possesses the regular Disney storytelling trappings of a hero’s journey – optimism and the realization that your mistakes don’t define you.
Both elements have the heft that may incline for better or worse because the narrative twists could range from fascinating (the aspect of watching your friends age while you stay the same) to ridiculous (Emperor Zurg’s “true” identity). What’s fascinating is that Lightyear has light panderings of existential dread and fixation. And although those themes aren’t fully fleshed out, it is interesting to see that a Pixar movie is giving the viewer these types of topics. Unfortunately, that happens with a couple of the concepts that the movie wants to throw onto the narrative and its galactic setting. Director Angus MacLane manages to get some directorial freedom here. He has different choices to play with in order to tell the definitive story of the classic companion to Woody. However, I think it is a little uneven in terms of the script, and it doesn’t seem like a film that would blow a kid’s mind when watched.
Yet, when you look at it from a story-centered standpoint, it doesn’t scream “to infinity and beyond”. Nonetheless, MacLane and the crew behind the camera manage to engage and enthrall despite all of this, thanks to nods to films they probably love, boisterous voice acting, and beautiful animation – it’s one of Pixar’s top-notch creations, animation-wise. You could sense the speed of light thanks to its colorful style and flash, as well as the sensation of the planet’s surroundings via the animation. Lightyear alludes to plenty of sci-fi pictures from past decades to forge its narrative and add elements of nostalgia, aside from the already implemented ones. The most obvious inspiration is Star Wars (although, personally, I’m not the biggest fan), as it is the primordial example for many of a space opera. However, it still remarks films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and more.
It contains plenty of borrowed elements that, in the wrong hands, could have been an eye-rolling experience. Of course, Chris Evans is no Tim Allen, but he does the voice justice, and I give him props because he’s not impersonating Allen. He’s doing his rendition of the character instead of sticking to the already planted one. Yet, for a film called Lightyear, it is a bit of a problem that the titular character isn’t the most interesting or sticks the most into one’s memory. The most interesting one is Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), which coincidentally deserved way more exploration in the character’s arc, and everyone’s favorite will be Sox, the robot cat. Peter Sohn brings so much energy and life to the film that he stands out a mile wide.
Sohn’s acute comedic timing is sharp enough to nail even the most straightforward jokes. In the end, is the movie worth the price of admission? One hundred percent yes! This isn’t close to being Pixar’s best work, and it does have a couple of narrative fractures that may hurt one’s viewing experience. However, Lightyear excels with its kaleidoscopic animation aesthetics and energetic voice actors that help elevate those flaws. You stick with these space rangers because, as the movie transgresses through its runtime, one tends to like them even more. Although it is not an astonishing achievement and doesn’t reach the “infinity and beyond”, Lightyear is better than one might have initially envisioned.
Lightyear is now available to watch on Disney Plus.