When Toy Story was released in 1995, it was not only Pixar’s first feature, it was their defining blockbuster franchise. And the company has evolved right along with the tale of those fan-favorite toys. Pixar proved they could make a sequel bigger than its predecessor with Toy Story 2, and that it could successfully “land the plane” so to speak with the then-franchise-concluding Toy Story 3. With Toy Story 4 nearly a decade later it was a time when many said Pixar was “sequel happy”, becoming like every other studio out there and feeling, well, somewhat less special.
So where does that place Lightyear, Pixar’s first major theatrical spinoff? Not quite “to infinity and beyond”, but a solid, entertaining trek into the stratosphere. Although, if you’re a stickler for details the idea that this story of Buzz Lightyear’s defining mission is the actual movie that made a young Andy fall in love with the character makes absolutely no sense. It’s still a clever brand extension of the Toy Story franchise, one that bring’s a drastic change in direction and the inevitability of sequels coming at warp speed.
For this version of Buzz Lightyear, it’s Chris Evans replacing Tim Allen as the space ranger’s voice. The change doesn’t mean much; Evans is basically speaking with the same ridigly heroic and authoritative tone that made his Captain America so popular for so long. The story by director/co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) finds Buzz, his team of space rangers, and the ship’s crew stranded on a faraway planet full of giant alien bugs out to kill them. Why are they stuck? Because a stubborn Buzz refused the help of others when offered. In an effort to fix a mistake that’s solely on his shoulders, Buzz experiments with different fuel combinations to get off the planet so everyone can return home. But with each successive failure he loses four years of time. Everyone he knows ages, while he stays the same.
In the movie’s most poignant scene, and in true Pixar fashion, this passage of time is visualized by Buzz’s aging friends. That includes his best friend and commander, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), her life rolling along in a series of milestones, including her marriage to another woman (a nice touch by Disney to not make a big deal of this terrific moment), birth of a child, etc. But as the people around him grow old and eventually go away, Buzz feels the full weight of what he’s done. His entire support system is also gone, leaving him more lost than ever.
Eventually, a new mission offers Buzz a chance at redemption. Alien robots under the rule of his eventual nemesis, Zurg (James Brolin), begin attacking the remaining human population on the planet. Buzz, who has seen the prior generation give way to this new one that is still stuck because of his arrogance, takes it upon himself to come to the rescue.
It’s a very straight-forward, linear story with clear messaging. Buzz has to learn to overcome his stubborness and learn to work as part of a team. His new teammates are a lively bunch, too, who really give this story a dose of energy. Keke Palmer voices the enthusiastic Izzy Hawthorne, Alisha’s granddaughter; Taika Waititi is the pen-obsessed Mo Morrison, and Dale Soules voices ex-prison inmate Darby Steel.
But the real highlight of the film, and almost guaranteed to get his own spinoff and to sell millions in Disney merch, is Sox the robotic cat. Voiced by Pixar veteran and The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn, Sox has all of the best jokes and would make a killer Disney feline tag team with Captain Marvel‘s cat Goose. Actually, they kinda look like twins? Whenever the film starts to veer off course, Sox is there to drag it back with a funny line or two.
Veer off course Lightyear does, however. While refreshingly easy to follow for the most part, the writers introduce a time travel quirk latter in the story that unnecessarily complicates things and leads to endless exposition. The fun is in figuring out how Buzz and his newfound friends leap from one galactic mishap to the next, becoming a real team in the process. Anything outside of that is gratuitous, and the film can’t help but feel overlong as a result.
Visually, this is one of the most beautiful movies Pixar has made. We’ve never seen them do this kind of true space age adventure before and they are clearly reveling in it. You can also tell that MacLane and his team have a true love for Buzz Lightyear and the Toy Story franchise. There are repeated callbacks to lines from previous films that might have seemed like throwaways (Buzz’s references to “crystallic fusion” for one) but now have relevance. While it can be argued that Lightyear is the least consequential of the franchise, it’s still exciting, light-hearted fun that charts a new course. I don’t expect this will be the last mission we get to go on with Buzz Lightyear. The question is whether this will lead Pixar to develop origin stories for others from Andy’s toybox?
Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17th.