The concept for Lightyear is so simple; it’s no wonder Disney-Pixar had difficulty explaining it to the masses: this is the favorite movie of Andy, the little boy from the first three Toy Story films. So it stands to reason that he would go nuts over a Buzz Lightyear doll – excuse me, action figure. It’s a wonderful idea, and I’m surprised that no one at Pixar came up with it sooner.
These movies take many years to conceive and make, so perhaps this was in the cards all along. This is a franchise that has always given back to Pixar, so it’s no surprise on a corporate level that this would be the next step in the series. If Lightyear is successful, we can expect more of these, with more ancillary toys, sets, t-shirts, you name it.
Sure, there’s a cynicism that this will be another cash cow for Disney, but marketing is going to do what it does, so I’m not here to judge the avalanche of plastic tchotchkes that will surely arrive at a store near you, but the final film. I can see how an eight-year-old like Andy would lose his mind over a movie like Lightyear. This laser beam of nostalgia is directly focused on the forty- or fifty-somethings in the audience who lost their collective minds over every piece of Star Wars Kenner material that came out in the 1970s and 1980s.
But (and I include myself in this), we wouldn’t have been so rabid over this stuff if the source material hadn’t directly excited us. Now, Lightyear is no Star Wars. It’s full of science fiction homages to all kinds of movies, not just the anointed Saga, and it’s hard to separate the intent from the finished product, which can’t reach the lofty heights of the films and stories that inspired it. It tries, though, and at times summons the awe and joy that those films evoked in so many of us.
For a film that is ostensibly from 1995, Lightyear is decidedly modern in sensibilities and inclusion – there’s a same-sex married couple in Lightyear, and there is no way 1995 Disney would have even approached a galaxy where that would be on screen – but the film’s thrills are pure Saturday matinee serial.
Instead of Tim Allen in the role, Chris Evans voices Buzz Lightyear (it’s not explained in the film, but there’s probably a meta-joke somewhere about how the studio behind Lightyear couldn’t afford to get the real actor to voice the toy), and while Allen’s Lightyear is a braggart and action-figuresque, Evans is more introspective, filling Buzz’s catchphrases with context and meaning.
Buzz is a Space Ranger, and when the film begins, he and his partner Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are marooned on a planet in uncharted space, along with their crew and their spacecraft. Buzz and Alisha must try to bring everyone back to Earth, but for that to happen, they need to farm power crystals for the ship to break the planet’s gravity and enter faster-than-light speeds. Buzz offers to fly the experimental ship that will break the light-speed barrier, but every trip he takes shoots him ahead in time for several years.
Eventually, Buzz has flown enough missions that when he returns, Alisha has passed on, there’s a new commander at Star Command, and a strange ship has appeared in the night sky, attacking the base with robots and leaving Buzz with a group of misfits to try to save the day. One of the recruits is Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), who was raised with years of stories of Space Rangers and adventure and is eager to join Buzz. But Buzz, who feels responsible for stranding everyone, feels that he must succeed at his mission alone.
The animators at Pixar have truly outdone themselves with Lightyear: this is easily one of the best-looking films in their substantial catalog, and the vastness of space, especially in IMAX, feels oppressive and awe-inspiring. You can tell the animators had a lot of fun playing with sci-fi tropes like alien landscapes, spaceships, and robots, even those established by previous movies.
The science of Lightyear tries to be as accurate as possible without spoiling the fun, which I respect. So many space movies just skip most of the science, and Lightyear, at least, tries to grapple with it as best it can while remaining true to the story it wants to tell. At some point, though, science must defer to laser blasts, killer robots, and space explosions, and that’s fine.
People familiar with the Buzz Lightyear canon may be surprised by some of the choices made here, especially with Zurg (James Brolin), but it’s a smart thematic choice that fits. Lightyear isn’t a complicated film for all the scale and pomp; the ideals of teamwork, family, and friendship are universal, and it manages to inject those morals without feeling cloying.
The voice work is superb – Evans is having a good time, but he’s also not simply a caricature of Tim Allen, bringing his own sensibilities into the character in bringing Buzz Lightyear to life. Taika Waititi is always a joy to hear, and I loved his character’s utilities as much as his earnestness. Dale Soules plays Darby Steel, a tough-as-nails engineer with a gooey center, and she gives it her all.
Peter Sohn‘s robot cat Sox will likely win over everyone, and unlike Buzz’s, voice will surely be heard at Christmastime when all those toy cats get their batteries installed. The best of the new characters is Keke Palmer’s Izzy, who gives us so much of the film’s heart, and Palmer makes it work. James Brolin fills Zurg with ominous intent but a surprising amount of depth as well.
Credit must be given to Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score, which pulls from all kinds of sources – Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” the work of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – but makes it uniquely his own. Giacchino is quickly becoming one of my favorite film composers, and while you can hear all his influences in the music, this feels original and compelling. It’s not easy work to make it sound so effortless. If you’re a fan, this is one of his very best.
Lightyear may feel lightweight at times — it’s a film for eight-year-old boys, after all, although it tries to bring everyone into the dance – but it’s no less enjoyable for that. It doesn’t shift the paradigm in any meaningful way, except with the animation, but it isn’t silly or dumb.
It cares for its characters, and the stakes are genuine and realistic. Like the Saturday matinee movies that inspired it, Lightyear is a good time at the movies for the whole family, and these days, that’s enough.
LIGHTYEAR REVIEW SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10
The first screenings of Pixar‘s Lightyear begin during the afternoon of Thursday, June 16. The film is rated PG for action/peril.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He has been a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer,” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.