‘Lightyear’ Film Review: The Pleasures of Pixar’s Spin-Off Are Far Too Finite

·4-min read
Disney/Pixar

The villain’s name in this summer’s “Jurassic World Dominion” refers to the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but it’s “Lightyear” that takes us through the looking glass. What we’re about to watch, an opening title card tells us, is the movie that made Andy from “Toy Story” want a Buzz Lightyear action figure back in 1995.

It’s a heady premise combined with a good deal of Hollywood navel-gazing, but that premise winds up being the most interesting attribute of this new Pixar feature. Rather than play like a significant departure from the “Toy Story” films that spawned it, “Lightyear” instead emerges as a disappointing runner-up, capturing but a fraction of the comedy, thrills and poignancy of its predecessors.

There are a million different directions that Disney could have gone with this material, from genre thrills to mind-bending meta references, but director Angus MacLane (“Finding Dory”) and co-writer Jason Headley (“Onward”) choose the path of least resistance. The result is a movie that will keep indiscriminating viewers entertained for 100 minutes but won’t engage the heart or the head in the way that “Toy Story” films have led viewers to expect over the last quarter-century-plus.

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Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger on a mission waylaid by his landing on a seemingly habitable planet. Once he takes a closer look, however, he realizes that the terrain is host to deadly flying insects and equally voracious flora, with vines and roots constantly attacking any interlopers. Lightyear is headstrong and not a team player, and those personality traits lead to him accidentally stranding his ship on the planet. The scientists traveling aboard the ship are awoken from their hibernation in order to build a colony and to work on creating a new crystal to act as a power source.

Years later, that power source prototype sufficiently developed, Buzz takes it to space to see if the hyperdrive is safe. At the end of a first failed trial, he discovers that years have passed on the planet while he was out testing the crystal. With test after test, he sees his best friend and mentor Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) fall in love with a woman, have a child, get old and die over the course of what feels like weeks to him.

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Along the way, Buzz acquires a robotic cat, Sox (Peter Sohn) — and in the grand tradition of Pixar sidekicks, Buzz’s emotional-support animal steals the movie. In addition to being cute, Sox also figures out how to develop a functioning fuel crystal, but by that time, the planet is being held captive by the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Can Buzz overcome his lone-wolf instincts and turn a ragtag group of losers (including Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy, voiced by Keke Palmer) into heroes who will save the day?

You can probably guess. And you can probably also play Bingo with the Pixar plot tropes on display, from the tear-jerking montage to the vainglorious villain. In better Pixar movies, we see certain plot points coming from a mile away but are too engaged to mind, but Buzz never becomes particularly interesting or empathetic beyond his role as a “character who spawns a toy we care about in other movies.”

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There’s so much sitting on the table here: If Pixar could make “Lightyear” a tire company in the “Cars” movie, where are the in-universe jokes here? Why no product placement for Pizza Planet? What about a jokey reference to the “Woody’s Roundup” TV show for viewers the age of Andy’s mom? And let’s face it: as admirable as it is that Pixar has created an LGBTQ character that can’t easily be dubbed over in foreign markets (the ones that demand that sort of thing will certainly find a way), there was no such thing as a mainstream studio kids’ movie of 1995 — not even an adult-aimed studio movie — progressive enough to pair a white male protagonist with a Black lesbian confidante.

The most 1995 aspect of “Lightyear” comes from Evans’ performance, but only if you imagine he’s intentionally impersonating George Clooney for the entire movie; that’s how it sounds, anyway. The laughs generally come from Sohn, Aduba and Taika Waititi as an inexperienced member of the Space Ranger reserves who gets pressed into service. (And even that latter character gets saddled with a set-up/payoff gag that’s so blatantly telegraphed that it should have been rewritten.)

To its credit, “Lightyear” has visual pizzazz, from the hyperspace sequences to the heretofore hidden surprises that emerge from those colorful buttons and dials on the Space Ranger uniforms. Ultimately, however, this film gives the world a new reason not to see a movie: “No thanks, I read the book” is now “No thanks, I played with the toy.”

“Lightyear” opens in US theaters June 17.

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