The first Pixar film released exclusively in theatres since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lightyear is a bit of a mixed bag. Sold as the movie that influenced little Andy from Toy Story to buy a Buzz Lightyear figure back in 1995, the adventure we’re presented is far too adult, lacking the sense of magic and wonder that’ll really open children’s imaginative minds. What’s more, by releasing an ‘origin story’ for Lightyear, Pixar has taken away from our own imaginations, given that, before this point, we were free to envisage what the life of a Space Ranger would have looked like. Did we really need to see a more realistic version of Buzz’s bulky spacesuit or find out where his iconic catchphrase, “To infinity and beyond!” came from? Probably not, but nostalgia sells, and so does the whole meta-ness of the ‘movie within a movie’ concept, so here we are.
Directed by supposed Buzz Lightyear ‘expert’ Angus MacLane, Finding Dory (2016), Lightyear opens when Galactic Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his commanding officer and best bud, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), are piloting a spherical colony ship (nicknamed the Turnip) with about 1,000 scientists on board — their mission: to check out a habitable planet known as T’kani Prime, lightyears away from Earth. After discovering that there are hostile lifeforms on this strange new world, the team is forced to retreat, with Buzz going all gung-ho and damaging their vessel in the escape. With the shuttle indefinitely grounded, Buzz realizes that the only way to re-power the Turnip is to use one of the hyperspeed crystals that his scientists have created, with Lightyear conducting several tests before the proposed take-off. Buzz, however, discovers that the hyperspeed fuel falls short every time, with the effects of time-dilation making each test-run last four years, even though it feels like mere minutes for Buzz — there’s a heart-wrenching montage that shows time passing as Buzz keeps testing the fuel, watching those around him age, while he remains very much the same.
Determined to complete the mission and take the outpost back to Earth — despite several folks having made a new life for themselves out in the stars — Buzz eventually succeeds in getting the fuel to work. However, when landing back on T’kani Prime, he’s startled to find out that a sinister robot army has invaded the land while he was away, with the human population having sealed itself in a giant laser shield dome to avoid the droids. Eager to learn more about the emerging threat, Lightyear reluctantly teams up with a band of rookies — Alisha’s now-adult granddaughter, Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer); an unexperienced space cadet, Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi); and an elderly paroled convict, Darby Steel (Dale Soules) — the group setting out to save the settlement and find out more about the mysterious foe leading the bots, Emperor Zurg.
As is the case with most Pixar joints, Lightyear is all about its themes and messages, with the film commenting on learning to live with our errors and not allowing past mistakes to consume our lives, and instead using them to reflect on ourselves. Writers MacLane, Matthew Aldrich, and Jason Headley also touch on the importance of giving everyone a ‘fair go’ and how simply participating should be reward enough. And while these are all admirable messages, delivered in an intelligent way, the film lacks a sense of fun, adventure, and excitement.
Moreover, Lightyear is somewhat bland and ugly to look at, taking place in one kind of dull location. Sure, the animation and cinematography by Jeremy Lasky, Finding Nemo (2003), and Ian Megibben, Soul (2020), is first-rate, but the heavy-handed mood and bleak aesthetic of the piece are far too dreary for a kid-centric Buzz Lightyear romp. Filmmakers also fudge the epic villain of Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) by trying to give him a Star Wars-esqe twist, which ultimately winds up messing up what should have been a pretty cool adversary.
On the flip side, Disney’s first proper LGBTQ+ character of Alisha Hawthorne — along with the family-friendly studio’s first same-sex kiss — is done organically, with Alisha’s relationship portrayed as something meaningful whilst coming off as a natural part of the story as opposed to something a little gimmicky. Furthermore, Uzo Aduba, My Little Pony: The Movie (2017), who voices the Space Ranger Commander Alisha, gives a very potent performance as Buzz’s best friend and is arguably the most memorable human character in the film.
While on the topic of performances, Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), does a solid job voicing our square-jawed hero Buzz Lightyear, who’s still as arrogant and headstrong as ever, despite being less playful and dynamic than Tim Allen, who provided the vocals for Lightyear in the Toy Story films (1995 – 2019). Keke Palmer, Hustlers (2019), is also good as Alisha’s steadfast daughter Izzy, who winds up forming her own friendship with Lightyear decades after her mom’s passing.
It’s the comic relief, however, that injects the much-needed life into this film. Both Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit (2019), and Orange Is the New Black (2013 – 19) alumni Dale Soules do wonderful work lending their chops to goofy naïve recruit Mo Morrison and gruff elderly convict Darby Steel, respectively. Honestly, though, it’s The Good Dinosaur (2015) director Peter Sohn who steals the entire film voicing an adorable, highly intelligent robotic cat named Sox, which Buzz receives after his first four years away from the settlement; not only does Sohn’s Sox provide the funniest moments in the movie, but the loveable furball could be the studio’s most bankable character success since Toy Story 4’s Forky (Sox is gonna sell a lot of toys!).
Although Lightyear isn’t necessarily a bad film per se, Angus MacLane and his team have missed the opportunity to do something uniquely special here. True, Lightyear is a fairly good Pixar movie that delivers some strong messages on inclusion and growing/ learning from blunders. Still, I feel that the whole venture isn’t exactly tailor-made for its target audience and would have probably worked better as a ten-minute short. My question is, though, where’s Andy’s Sox toy?
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)
Lightyear is released through Disney Australia