Lightyear is cute, sporadically, and if only because this paint by numbers spinoff tries so hard to reach for cloying sentimentality. A flicker of the space ranger diving into action will enchant the eye. The plain-spoken, now poetic phrase “to infinity and beyond” will lift the heart. But once these spikes of nostalgia fade, the viewer will sink back into the film’s malaise of stock characters and cringe one-liners. This movie needs to be funny, but it rarely is.
The newest Pixar offering isn’t a conventional prequel. In 1995, Toy Story’s Andy watched a movie that captured his imagination and prompted him to buy a Buzz Lightyear action figure. Lightyear is the movie he watched. It’s also the movie Disney hopes your kids will see, ultimately making them buy their own Buzz Lightyear toys.
That assumption probably sounds cynical. But when a studio chooses to send a perspective-breaking film like Turning Red to streaming to make room for a legacy title promising more of the same, then jaded assumptions arrive with warp speed force.
Helmed by Angus MacLane (Finding Dory), Lightyear is a whimsical, overstuffed sci-fi adventure. It recalls all the classic movies you’d expect — 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Star Trek — but it possesses none of the originality, wit, or wellspring of emotion you’d expect from a Pixar movie. One would hesitate to call this spinoff terrible. Instead, the film finds an unsettling comfort in being aggressively average.
It starts with a sure-footed small step: Buzz (Chris Evans) and his fellow space ranger, a heroic Black woman named Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), arrive on a lush planet in search of a habitable home for a community of humans sleeping in stasis. Like Woody, Hawthorne loves poking fun at Buzz’s self-absorbed, by-the-book habit of recording star logs no one will ever hear. In fact, his first few lines, where he notes the composition of the planet, are nearly word-for-word what he says in Toy Story when he awakens in Andy’s room.
Unlike those happy surroundings, however, Buzz and Hawthorne soon discover they’ve landed on a hostile planet replete with killer vines and mutant bugs. They try to return to their ship, but the cocky Buzz dooms them. Rather than listening to the navigational system, he tries to save the day himself but crashes, leaving himself and everyone else marooned on the craggy rock.
The blistering open gives audiences everything they could want: Callbacks to Toy Story, Buzz flying through the air, the drama of his failure. But Lightyear struggles to take a sure leap as the specter of aging and frustration arises.
Buzz and Hawthorne need to recreate their ship’s warp drive if they and the other humans, now awakened from stasis, hope to leave. They decide to test their prototype cores by flying Buzz and his starfighter around a nearby sun. It’s a simple experiment with a catch: Every trip zaps Buzz four years into the future while everyone else on the planet ages normally. Hawthorne soon grows old and has grandchildren while the still young Buzz, ashamed of his failure, repeatedly tries to achieve warp speed.
Lightyear momentarily achieves the melancholy this plot aims for, until they spoil the narrative’s good will by introducing side characters meant to expand Buzz’s cinematic universe. It takes decades before Buzz finally succeeds and, by that point, a mysterious ship helmed by Emperor Zerg (James Brolin) unleashes a robot army to attack the city the colonists and their new leader Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) have built.
Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer) is now grown-up, and she, along with the clumsy and frightened Mo (Taika Waititi) and the elderly but spunky ex-con Darby (Dale Soules) are planning to infiltrate Zerg’s ship. The difficulty in watching arises from caring for the new cast.
None of these characters in this convoluted movie are particularly interesting. They’re common tropes meant to teach kids the importance of finding courage and turning perceived weaknesses into strengths. We’ve seen these obstacles in far better cartoons, and Lightyear isn’t one of them.
By taking Buzz out of the Toy Story universe Lightyear also takes away the very conflict that made them special: The tension between Westerns and space movies. Andy’s story always felt like a throwback to the late 1960s, when kids turned in their cowboy hats and plastic six shooters for helmets and wings. Buzz signified the progress of newer Americana dreams, while Woody occupied the nostalgic past.
Here, it’s Buzz fighting to relive flights of yesteryears. He wants to travel to the stars again, to be a space ranger. Without Woody, however, there’s no friction in his journey. He traverses a straightforward story about learning to live in the present while accepting the help of others. And try as Evans might, even his spot-on vocal performance can’t conjure up the same fish-out of water laughs inherent to the character.
If the writers were continuing with the era Buzz is meant to evoke, you’d expect this movie to include more silly B-movie hijinks. You’d also want more fanciful, schlocky designs of ships and monsters. In short, you’d expect some risk taking. None of that exists.
Lightyear, from a visual standpoint, is exceptionally well-made: the textures are felt, the striking use of shadows stir deep emotions. That’s to be expected. The spinoff, however, doesn’t bring much else. Even the emergence of Buzz’s robotic cat companion doesn’t provide real magic, because the character never feels genuine. Every joke it tries carries a whiff of pandering. By the time we arrive at the big twist, this predictable cartoon is merely going through the motions in its long, slow journey toward middlebrow representation that feels algorithmically calculated rather than organic.
The grander question with Lightyear is whether this movie would’ve excited Andy, and if it can exhilarate other children. Maybe? Nothing falls totally flat: The visuals, score, cinematography, stories, and emotions are all pleasing enough. And it’s refreshing to see more Black characters with central roles in animation. But if you’re looking for a movie that’ll conjure the imagination in the same way Toy Story did, then you’ll leave disappointed. Lightyear goes to infinity, but nowhere particularly special.
Lightyear is in theatres now.