REVIEW – ‘Lightyear’ might just reach infinity, but not quite beyond

In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favourite movie. This is that movie.

With these two opening sentences, Pixar instantly establishes the initially confusing context behind Lightyear; a Toy Story spin-off that’s not quite a prequel in the purest sense. These are not the adventures of the beloved toy voiced by Tim Allen over the course of four near-perfect films. It’s an origin story of a character we have technically never met. It’s the movie that inspired the toy in the movies that we know and love.

While Lightyear can’t quite reach the lofty heights of its four Toy Story compatriots, it’s still hugely entertaining and satisfying. It’s a breezy, action-packed space adventure with a good dose of heart and one adorable cat that steals the whole damn film. Is it a story we necessarily needed? Well, no. Not exactly. But it’s probably a smarter move than daring to attempt a fifth Toy Story film and one that allows Disney and Pixar to tap into the nostalgia and brand recognition of the franchise without the risk of destroying it with a mediocre sequel.

On a distant planet millions of miles from Earth, Captain Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is leading an expedition with his trusty commanding officer and best pal Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) while an entire Star Command crew safely naps in their hypersleep chambers. While this strange world initially seems uninhabited, Buzz and Alisha are soon attacked by a hostile swarm of extraterrestrial creatures, leading to their spaceship being damaged after Buzz botches an escape attempt.

Naturally, Buzz now holds himself fully responsible for leaving his entire team stranded on a foreign planet. As the crew make the best of the situation and use their resources to build a new home, Buzz relentlessly attempts to find an energy source to power the ship back to Earth. However, with each test flight of this volatile material, Buzz jumps forward in time and remains the same age while his friends grow old around him.

Upon his return after one seemingly successful flight that pushes him 20-odd years in the future, Buzz is shocked to discover the emergence of the nefarious Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his army of robots who have trapped the entire Star Command crew within the town they’ve created. A ray of hope appears in the form of a rag-tag group of escapees comprised of Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), Darby Steel (Dale Soules), and an adorable robot cat named Sox (Peter Sohn), who join forces with Buzz in an attempt to save the day.

The fact Allen doesn’t reprise his role as the titular Space Ranger isn’t all that odd when you consider toys are very rarely voiced by the same actors who play that character in the film. Big-name stars have better things to do and the task is generally passed off to someone else. Tom Hanks actually enlists his brother, Jim to voice every piece of Woody tie-in merchandise, video games, and theme park appearances. Unsurprisingly, Evans is more than up to the task to fill Allen’s shoes.

If you’re looking for someone to play a daring hero fueled by their past mistakes, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone better than Captain America himself. With that charismatic, all-American charm that flows through every one of his performances, Evans nails it as the cocky, headstrong astronaut who must learn the value of teamwork as opposed to always going it alone. His chemistry with the ever-reliable Aduba grounds the first act and ultimately reaches an emotional moment that comes achingly close to Pixar’s biggest tearjerker scenes.

Palmer brings lashings of enthusiasm and humanity to the bubbly Izzy, who, like her grandmother, teaches Buzz a thing or two about life. Waititi and Soules aren’t given all that much to do but provide a constant stream of levity, but it works tremendously well. And then there’s Sohn, whose perfect deadpan delivery creates one of the most memorable and lovable Pixar characters of recent times. Like the love child of R2-D2 and Baymax, Sox is offered the film’s best lines and funniest moments as he effortlessly steals every scene with his ridiculously cute character design and super-sharp wit. An instant merchandising goldmine is born.

After delivering so many ingenious screenplays over the years that dig to depths rarely seen in animation, Pixar sets the bar so terribly high on a narrative level. And it’s one that Lightyear just doesn’t really clear. Director Angus MacLane (who co-wrote the script with Jason Headley) tries earnestly to explore Buzz’s psyche and notions of perfectionism, isolation, and human connection. It’s charming to watch him grow and evolve into someone who realises the folly of his ways and form strong bonds with those around him. By focusing too intently on fixing his mistakes, Buzz was missing out on actually living his life; a lesson he needs to learn before it’s too late.

It’s here where the film pulls at your heartstrings, as Buzz’s time-travelling test flights cause him to be absent for the major moments in Alisha’s life including her wedding, the birth of her son, and her final days. It’s an emotional arc the screenplay can only sustain for so long before it mostly just evolves into a fairly stock standard sci-fi adventure. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but this is a studio known for consistently pushing the boundaries of storytelling and that’s not exactly on display here.

As you may have heard, Alisha is gay and marries a woman with the two sharing a brief kiss on screen; something that was initially cut from the film but (rightfully) inserted back in after backlash from inside the Disney ranks. It has caused Lightyear to be banned in several Middle Eastern countries and will no doubt ruffle feathers across the globe. Frankly, it all happens so quickly that your children are unlikely to even notice. Still, any form of LGBTQ representation in mainstream cinema has to be celebrated, even in the barest of forms.

It’s ultimately the entertainment factor where Lightyear truly excels. With plenty of thrilling action set pieces, spaceship flights, and robot battles, the film is enormously fun. It’s a classic space romp that rarely lags. It wants you to have a good time and knows how to make it happen. It’s also an entry-level movie for kids to discover the joys of science fiction cinema and one where they can see a cherished toy in bombastic sequences they’ve only ever cooked up in their minds. It’s not hard to see why this was “Andy’s favourite movie.” Unsurprisingly, the animation is typically stunning and Michael Giacchino‘s retro sci-fi score perfectly complements every scene.

After delivering a string of brilliant original films in the form of SoulLuca, and Turning Red, it’s naturally a little disappointing to see Pixar lean back on nostalgia and offer up something that feels a touch too familiar for its own good. There’s plenty here for young ones and fans of the Toy Story quadrilogy, but nothing close to the magic those films somehow delivered again and again. It might just reach infinity, but not quite beyond. Regardless, Lightyear is a solid little film that’s still richly enjoyable and a total blast.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, Peter Sohn, Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Efren Ramirez
Director: Angus MacLane
Producer: Galyn Susman
Screenplay: Jason Headley, Angus MacLane
Cinematography: Jeremy Lasky, Ian Megibben
Production Design: Tim Evatt
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editor: Anthony J. Greenberg
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 17th June 2022 (Australia)