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Review: Lightyear

June 13, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Pixar’s Lightyear, a spinoff from the Toy Story film series that purports to show the origin story of the famous space ranger, opens with subtitles explaining that, in 1995, a boy named Andy saw a movie that made him want a Buzz Lightyear action figure, and “this is that movie.”

It’s a succinct way of setting up the film’s premise, after a marketing campaign that caused some confusion around if Buzz Lightyear was intended to be a real person whose life inspired a movie, or simply a fictional character who inspired a toy.

It’s the latter, it turns out, and Lightyear serves as a somewhat meta but mostly sincere sci-fi adventure that ultimately raises a larger question; did we really need to see the movie behind the fictitious toy?

Now I don’t want to in any way suggest that Lightyear is a bad movie, because it’s not, and for the most part this is actually a pretty entertaining one. Director Angus MacLane, who served as co-director on Finding Dory and co-wrote Lightyear‘s screenplay with Jason Headley, has crafted a fairly enjoyable space movie built around an alternate but still recognizable version of this familiar character.

But Lightyear is also a surprisingly straight-forward effort that can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment from a studio with an impossibly high batting average, especially following a string of unique original works like Turning Red, Luca and Soul. With those three films relegated to streaming-only releases on Disney Plus due to COVID, Lightyear also happens to be the studio’s first movie to be released in theatres since Onward had its run cut short at the start of the pandemic, and it’s a decision that feels at least partially commercial, due to this film’s franchise connections.

The film follows the adventures of Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans, taking over for Tim Allen), a cocky Space Ranger working for Star Command who is exploring a far-off planet with his commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). When ship troubles cause them to become stranded with the deadly vines and bugs on the planet, Buzz feels responsible and becomes determined to find a way to get them safely back to Earth.

But the light-speed missions to find a new fuel source keep making Buzz jump ahead by several years due to time dilation, meaning that everyone around him gets older as he stays roughly around the same age. This time dilation element presents an intriguing dimension to the film’s narrative, which borrows from sci-fi epics like Interstellar and Ad Astra, repurposing some familiar story beats into a largely kid-friendly story. But the science also feels slightly underdeveloped, especially with a twist partway through that should have been further explored.

In regards to Alisha, Pixar has delivered their most prominent queer character yet, with a side plot involving her marrying a woman and having a family all while Buzz keeps jumping ahead in his mission (the progressiveness of this plot point is somewhat incongruous with the fact that this is supposed to be a ’90s movie, but I digress). When faced with the threat of Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his band of robot henchmen, Buzz is forced to team up with the new trio of Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules) to stop him and save their planet.

The most amusing new addition to the cast is Sox (voiced by Pete Sohn), a robotic feline programmed to be a companion for Buzz who walks away with the entire movie. Sox is not only adorable (and a ready-made plush toy), but also delivers the film’s most genuinely funny moments. Though his existence here does raise a larger question in terms of franchise continuity; if this movie was such a hit in the Toy Story universe to inspire such highly sought after toys, surely Andy would have wanted Sox as well?

While there certainly are things to like about it (i.e., Sox), Lightyear also lacks the specialness (for lack of a better word) that has defined Pixar’s best films. The story is surprisingly predictable, with generic messages about teamwork and accepting help that feel below the studio’s usual standards. While there was potential for it here with the passage of time stuff, this is far from the philosophical richness of Soul, Inside Out, or even the surprisingly essential and under-appreciated Toy Story 4.

There are moments designed to tug on the heartstrings, but for the most part, the story’s emotional beats feel somewhat manufactured. The opening scenes have a jokey tone that fails to properly establish the characters or dramatic stakes, and the new human characters are largely underdeveloped. The film doesn’t really do a good enough job of fleshing them out, so Buzz is the only one (aside from Sox) that we really have any sort of connection to.

The biggest saving grace of Lightyear are its visuals. This is the first Pixar film to be made for the IMAX format (which is how I screened the film at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto), and this really is the best way to view it. The moments when the film switches from widescreen 2.35:1 to a 1.43:1 aspect ratio to fill the IMAX screen are quite impressive. The animation is as polished and cutting edge as we can expect from Pixar, with some gobsmacking images of space and some impressive lighting that includes a more subdued colour palate, matched by another rousing Michael Giacchino score.

While Lightyear has enough going on that it is never boring, I’m also not sure its existence really serves to enhance the Toy Story films or our already established interpretation of the character. Yes, there are a few clever ideas here, and Sox is a delightful scene-stealer. But the film is too simplistic to really stand on its own, and can’t help feeling like a toy commercial at times. This is one of Pixar’s most blatant cash grabs, and no, that doesn’t make it bad. But it’s also not quite up to their usual high standards.

Lightyear is opening exclusively in theatres on June 17th.

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