In 1995, so the story goes, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday, the toy itself coming from his favorite movie. As someone who, as a kid in the 90s, also got a Buzz Lightyear toy from my favorite movie, needless to say my eyes lit up like fireworks at the mere announcement of Disney-Pixar’s latest film Lightyear, billed as the in-universe film from which the Buzz Lightyear toy line originated from.
Lightyear is a film that comes with a lot on its shoulders: not only is it a new take on an iconic character from one of the most universally acclaimed IPs in film history, but it’s also likely the first major step in expanding the Toy Story universe for a brand new generation of fans, all without alienating an audience that has stuck with the films for almost twenty years. Thankfully, Lightyear never feels limited by previous Toy Story films, and actually comes across as a rather clever way of utilizing the existing framework to build a new story on. Several early moments are repurposed from the original Toy Story, dialogue and all, but they’re the only real references to those movies and are key to establishing a sense of familiarity with older audience members before sending this new version of Buzz off on his own adventure and establishing him as a (relatively) new character.
The defining trait of this version of Buzz—excellently played by Chris Evans—is a dedication to completing his mission after making a costly mistake that leaves him and his crew, one that flirts dangerously close with becoming obsession. This is the heart of what drives Lightyear forward: each of his test flights essentially causes him to jump forward in time in roughly four-year increments bookmarked by glimpses into the life of his friend and commander Alisha in a series of snippets reminiscent of the beloved opening to Pixar’s Up: we fast forward through watching her find love, start a family, and build a life for herself—yes, this does include the LGBTQ+ kiss you’ve no doubt heard the controversy over, a controversy I refuse to devote any energy to beyond saying that it feels utterly damning on us as humans that merely acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ+ people is still a controversial topic in 2022. In contrast, Buzz’s apartment sits practically empty for years on end, with only his faithful companion Sox—a lovable robot cat that Disney will no doubt sell many, many, many plushies of—dutifully working on trying to find the formula for a stable fuel with which to power the ship.
It’s a clever, poignant twist on the classic time travel trope: instead of an accident or experiment gone wrong, it’s Buzz’s own inability to let go, to keep trying to fix his mistake that leads to him drifting further and further ahead in time—and further and further away from his friends and colleagues. Even when his new commander informs him that the decision has been made to try and make the best out of life on the planet, to make the world they’re on home instead of trying to get back into space in search of a place many of those now living at the base would no longer recognize as home, Buzz is still unable to let go, going on the run from his commanding officers and leaping forward another twenty years or so in time. We even see the final result of this obsession: the James Brolin voiced Zurg, shown here to be a direct result of Buzz’s dedication to finishing the mission. Buzz’s inevitable confrontation with him is really a confrontation with his own shortcomings—a potentially fascinating turn cut short by Pixar’s refusal to let Buzz be anything short of heroic—and he’s only able to triumph by learning to embrace life with his newfound companions.
This ragtag crew of companions, led by the now grown-up Izzy (Keke Palmer) is central to Lightyear‘s emotional center—Buzz has to learn to trust his newfound comrades and admit that he can’t do it all on his own, while Izzy has to conquer both her fear of space and her fear of being unable to live up to her grandmother’s legacy—and meeting them is when the film really takes off, leaving the first twenty minutes or so to feel like an oddly extended introduction or prequel to the real film. Nothing here is particularly groundbreaking, but Palmer and Evans do an excellent job of selling us on the developing friendship and trust between the two—not to mention the ever scene-stealing Taika Waititi doing what he does best.
The animation here is particularly noteworthy—there’s never been a bad looking Pixar film, but Lightyear’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous world and its chunky, vintage sci-fi aesthetic doesn’t just set itself head and shoulders above the competition, it begs the question if there’s any competition at all, at least in the visual department. The film’s launch sequences in particular feeling miles ahead of anything the likes of Illumination has to offer. It’s also where the creative team gets to show off a wider variety of inspirations: one setpiece feels reminiscent of Gravity (or the infamous Leia sequence in The Last Jedi), while my personal favorite setpiece feels like the iconic plane segment of Uncharted 3 set in space.
Where the film falls short is how safe it feels. The story beats are on point and the emotional journey of its two leads is one that you can easily get invested in, but it’s a film that feels entirely paint-by-numbers. Perhaps I’ve become too analytical for my own good—especially considering that this is a film clearly aimed at younger audiences—but at no point while watching Lightyear did I ever feel like there was ever any genuine risk to our ragtag band of heroes, nor was there ever a point where I felt surprised, unsure of where the story was going, or blown away by what I had just seen. Even the emotional gut-punch that’s a signature of every Pixar is reminiscent of one of the studio’s much better outings—mind you, it still hits just as hard. It’s just a fairly standard sci-fi adventure film, and while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that it winds up feeling disappointingly pedestrian compared to the more adventurous outings Pixar has put out like Soul or Coco.
Overall, Lightyear is a very good animated film from a studio that almost exclusively makes very good animated films. The film’s emotional core is rock solid, it has an excellent message about what’s really important in life and it’s a more than excellent summer blockbuster for both kids and grownups alike. But it’s a film that I spent an hour and a half waiting to see soar, only to get a small glimpse at the film’s climax; one that feels like it’s building up to something grand but ends before we can reach it. I’m almost certainly a victim of my own expectations—I went into the film expecting to feel like a kid again for an hour and a half, an expectation almost impossible to meet—but Lightyear just feels like it’s missing that special something that would take it to the level of the studio’s best; it’s a film that takes us to infinity, but falls short of reaching beyond.