Disney/Pixar’s Lightyear may be the first real evidence of the Disney-slash-Pixar brand where the former has finally consumed the latter, evidenced by the truncated Luxo Jr. animation logo that appears prior to the film starting. This might be the studio’s first effort where the patented “Pixar Magic” feels artificial, the alternating comedy and sentimental bits mandated instead of allowing the story to find its own footing.
In a way Lightyear is like cinematic baby food; it delivers all the nutritional content promised on the bottle, but the experience of consuming it has been carefully telegraphed, pre-chewed, and less satisfying for it. Much has been said of Pixar’s decline in recent years, noticeably after the ejection of John Lassetter, but this is the first time you feel the missing magic.
Which is a shame as the concept is actually (raises eyebrow) quite fascinating: in 1995 a young Andy saw Lightyear in theaters and, like any good toy movie should, driving him Buzz Lightyear crazy. “This is that movie” the credits promise, and we’re thrust into a space adventure where the “real” Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are exploring T’Kani Prime, a hostile planet populated only by weird and creepy things that don’t want them living there.
Their adventure on the planet was only Intended as a pit-stop, and while trying to escape Buzz accidentally damages their turnip-shaped ship (named the Turnip, of course), marooning them on T’Kani Prime indefinitely. Now, it’s up to Buzz and the crew’s scientists to establish a colony and harvest the planet’s natural resources to develop the hyperspace fuel they’ll need to escape and continue their mission.
Only testing the fuel creates a problem; every 4-minute attempt in space means 4 years pass on the planet, so while Buzz remains the same everyone he knows grows older as time continues to pass. With only his trusty robotic companion cat (Peter Sohn), because Disney movies always need a talking animal, Buzz decides to continue the testing at any cost. Decades pass while his tests continue to fail – and his friends age (and die).
Eventually, Buzz connects with Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha, and her motley crew of “defense” force rejects, including Mo Morriso (Taika Waititi), Darby Steel (Dale Soules), and I.V.A.N., a talking AI. In his absence the planet has been invaded by an army of robots known only as The Zerg, and the future of the colony depends on Buzz and his new companions destroying the Zerg ship and defeating the evil Emperor Zerg.
Writer/Director Angus MacLane (his first solo gig after co-directing Finding Dory) has crafted a perfectly fine, often funny, family-friendly animated action adventure that doesn’t embarrass the Toy Story franchise. Only he plays it straight, too straight perhaps, never indulging in the crass commercialism and illogical action-figure world a real Buzz Lightyear film designed for preteen boys might have looked like. Where’s the insanity a breathless Penn Jillette (from Penn & Teller) promised in the Buzz Lightyear action figure commercials from the original Toy Story? Where’s the karate chop action or pulsating laser lights?
Remember the opening scene from Toy Story 2, which we learn later is from a Buzz video game? That bit was more visually creative, more inspiring, more faithful to the Buzz Mythos than what we get here. This version of Buzz Lightyear sands away the toy’s hypermasculine bravado and delusional narcissism in favor of a more thoughtful, considerate replacement parents would approve of – but little boys would hate.
Visually, as we’d expect from a Pixar movie, Lightyear is gorgeous to look at. Nearly everything has an almost toy-like aesthetic that suggests this world could be played with and sold in stores everywhere. I just with the film allowed us to enjoy it more as everything zips by so quickly, rarely stopping to take in this melding of outer space and molded plastic. Michael Giacchino’s score is suitably heroic, yet never resorts to cheap callbacks to Randy Newman’s sensational Buzz theme from the OG Toy Story films.
Chris Evans as the “real” Buzz isn’t Tim Allen, but he’s not supposed to be. Which is a shame as the film could’ve used a little of the Toolman’s natural charisma to liven things up. Evans is fine in the role, if forgettable, though the performance feels like a product of bad editing. Occasionally, Evans’ Buzz will insert “Buzzisms” (snippets of Allen’s deluded observations, like “slotted pig”), but these feel out of character for this version of Buzz. Worse, they don’t even sound like they were performed in the same voice, like they were added in later to make Evans’ Buzz sound more like Allen’s Buzz.
The rest of the cast is fine with no real standouts, minus Peter Sohn (a Pixar director himself) as Sox the robotic cat. If anything, there’s too much dialogue as the characters never shut up. They always talk, always quip, often overindulging in dialogue alternating between quippy one minute and ponderous the next. Again, this is supposed to be an action film designed to thrill and sell toys to little boys in the 1990s; what kid wouldn’t enjoy insights into character’s insecurities, intergenerational lesbian relationships, and not being the center of attention?
Despite these issues there’s really nothing wrong with Lightyear as a movie; it pushes the right buttons, does everything that “modern family entertainment” is supposed to do. It’s often quite funny and the animation is amazing. But there’s no getting around the fact that, had this been the movie a younger Andy watched as a kid, there’s no way he would’ve been as Buzz Lightyear crazy as he was. Lightyear not only fails to commit to its intriguing premise, it actively distances itself from it. The “real” Buzz Lightyear would’ve happily gone to infinity and beyond, not play it safe and conventional.