For every Inside Out or Soul that breaks new ground in the art form with innovative storytelling, Pixar inevitably churns out more standard commercial fare like Cars 2 or Monsters University. In the case of Lightyear, it falls somewhere between the two.
Perhaps to address some of the confusion regarding how Lightyear connects to the original Toy Story, the film succinctly opens with the following: “In 1995 Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” If nothing else, six-year-olds are guaranteed to enjoy this film, so the filmmakers got that right.
The story finds Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans this time around instead of Tim Allen) marooned on a hostile alien planet with his fellow Space Rangers of Star Command. Though not his fault, Buzz puts the blame squarely on himself and seeks to atone for his mistake by embarking on various test flights in order to crack a new formula for interstellar travel so that they can all finally return home. Unfortunately, with each failed test flight that spans only minutes for Buzz, four years pass in regular time until his final successful test that lands Buzz more than 60 years in the future.
If this seems like a perfect metaphor for the last two years living during the pandemic, you’re not alone. As the director and co-writer Angus MacLane has admitted in interviews, though the film began production before the pandemic, this global event couldn’t help but influence and affect the filmmakers. While it avoids the traps of falling into any obvious or tone-deaf political commentary, Lightyear doesn’t quite offer anything new or innovative.
Disney came under fire for cutting out a same-sex kiss between the character of Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), and another woman. In the end, Disney listened and restored the kiss in spite of the repercussions that followed including countries banning the release of Lightyear. As laudable as it is for Disney to remain firm in support of the LGBTQ+ community when all is said and done, the gay representation checks only the basic boxes. After watching Lightyear, I challenge anyone to describe any defining characteristics of Alisha’s wife. How about something much simpler and try to even remember her name. Therein lies the problem, there’s no romance or anything that resonates on a deep level between the characters. Compare it to the famous opening sequence of Up where in the span of barely 10 minutes, the entire romantic history of Carl and Ellie is laid bare resulting in a Niagara Falls worth of tears. Lightyear is lucky to manage even a leaky faucet.
Moreover, the world of Lightyear is never properly established or built, so there’s no investment in this stranded crew that apparently numbers in the hundreds. Aside from Hawthorne, the only other person Buzz connects with in the first half of the film is an airman named Diaz, voiced by Efren Ramirez whom you might know best as Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. However, Diaz completely disappears in the second act and is never mentioned or brought up again, making you wonder what exactly such a disposable character served the story. In a similar vein, there’s even a rookie character voiced by a completely underutilized Bill Hader.
That’s not to say that Lightyear is completely without merit. Being a Pixar film, the animation is still at the top of its game with sequences that recall iconic space films ranging from Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ridley Scott‘s Alien. And of course, the voice talent is perfectly cast. Given his long tour of duty as Steve Rogers/Captain America in the MCU, Evans brings in some of the First Avenger’s earnestness as Buzz Lightyear. But whereas Tim Allen’s Buzz could often come off at times as arrogant in the Toy Story films, there’s a sincerity to this version of Buzz that renders him endearing yet still true to the core of the character.
Rounding out the Lightyear supporting cast are the Junior Zap Cadets, your quintessential film underdogs and underachievers. Nevertheless, they’re not without their own charms thanks in large part to the voice actors. These include the affable Mo Morrison played by Taika Waititi. Between the breakout hit Our Flag Means Death and Thor: Love and Thunder next month, the New Zealand filmmaker is quite ubiquitous these days. I’m sure there will come a time when Waitit’s shtick will eventually get worn out, but for now, he still remains a welcome presence. The always delightful Keke Palmer brings her trademark enthusiasm to the role of Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy. Likewise, Dale Soules infuses the same cantankerous comedy gold as Darby Steel that she put on full display as Frieda Berlin in Orange is the New Black. But, without a doubt, the breakout star of the film has to be Sox, Buzz’s personal robot cat companion voiced by Pixar animator Peter Sohn. Putting aside the obvious merchandise and commercial possibilities inherent with Sox, he is quite possibly the heart of the film, not just for audiences, but for Buzz himself.
I think I can safely say that Lightyear won’t crack the top ten Pixar films but it’s nowhere near the bottom of the studio’s filmography. It’s the safe and reliable summer box office action-adventure movie designed for mass appeal. You won’t regret seeing it but I can’t say it will make as tremendous an impact compared to Pixar’s previous ventures.
Lightyear is in theaters today!