If we’re being totally honest, Lightyear doesn’t quite live up to its premise. A series of opening title cards explains that in 1995, a kid named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday because he adored a movie — this movie. I was about Andy’s age in 1995, and I can tell you; they didn’t make movies this good-looking, thoughtful, or sensitive back then.
Taken on its own merits, though, Lightyear works. The impetus to make this film might have been to find a new way to capitalize on people’s love of Toy Story, but it’s still an entertaining and sometimes surprisingly tender adventure movie. (It would probably stand fine on its own for someone who’s never heard of Toy Story.) Even if it never matches the magic of Toy Story — or, for that matter, Pixar’s recent masterpiece Turning Red — it does provide a very satisfying 100 minutes at the movies.
It’s 100 minutes to us; to the characters in the film it’s a lot longer. As Lightyear opens, Buzz (Chris Evans) and his Space Ranger partner Alisha (Uzo Aduba) land their ship on a faraway planet. The local wildlife proves hostile, and in trying to blast off again, Buzz accidentally crashes their rocket, marooning himself and hundreds of colonists amidst dangerous alien terrain.
Evans was a smart choice to play this version of Buzz. He has to evoke Tim Allen’s beat cop in space energy from Toy Story without mimicking it; Allen’s bombastic Buzz just wouldn’t work in a story that treats him as a fallible human rather than an oblivious piece of plastic. In the Captain America and Avengers movies, Evans proved particularly adept at playing the vulnerability masked by Steve Rogers’ puffed-up physique, and at bringing out the emotional shadings of a rigid do-gooder. Both skills come in handy in Lightyear.
Blaming himself for the mission’s failure, Buzz fixates on finding a way to build and test a special crystal that will power their ship’s hyperdrive and enable the stranded crew to make their way home. But each crystal test dilates time, meaning a flight that passes in minutes to Buzz actually takes years to complete. And the longer Buzz tries to successfully achieve hyperspeed, the more the other survivors grow accustomed to their new home, and Alisha and Buzz’ other friends move on with their lives.
As that description suggests, beneath Lightyear’s upbeat sci-fi surface lies the melancholic heart of a Pixar movie. Amidst the escapist thrills and a lot of comic relief — much of it provided by Buzz’s scene-stealing robot cat sidekick Sox (The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn) — lies a meditation of mortality, the nature of time, and the meaning of life. (This story of isolation from society might also resonate with people emerging from a pandemic.)
None of that material is too heavy-handed. Frankly, Lightyear might have benefited from more hard sci-fi and character study and less of the stock space adventure and the scenes where Buzz and his new team of pratfall-prone partners (including Keke Palmer as Alisha’s granddaughter and a bumbling dork played by Taika Waititi) learns to work together.
Those sequences could appear in a lot of films. Others feel uniquely Pixar, like the one where Buzz mourns the loss of a friend, and even cries. How many sci-fi action movies feature heroes who show that kind of vulnerability?
Again, that’s not something you would find in a four-quadrant family film from the mid-1990s. Still, there’s something to be said for the Lightyear Pixar did make. At my press screening, I witnessed its power firsthand. Let me tell you a story.
A few minutes after Lightyear started, a mom and a young girl — I’d guess she was maybe 10 or 11 years old — arrived at the theater, and sat down right next to me. At first I was annoyed because I’m a germaphobic weirdo and I like to keep a little space around me at the theater these days if at all possible. This mom and daughter didn’t even leave me a buffer seat. For a minute or two, I thought about moving to a less crowded part of the theater.
I stayed because it quickly became clear that this girl was loving the film, and seeing it through her eyes was a special thing to behold. She was invested in this story in the way only a kid can be invested in a story. She bounced up and down in her seat, repeated the dialogue back to the screen in a soft voice, and cheered all the big heroic moments. During a crucial scene late in the film, she whispered “Don’t do it Buzz!” with such intensity I was terrified Buzz would do it and break this poor kid’s heart forever.
So maybe Lightyear isn’t the kind of movie that Hollywood would have made in 1995. As a 2022 movie, it works just fine.
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