Disney/Pixar’s announcement of Lightyear was something that sent shockwaves through the company’s community of fans. For the first time, we have a spinoff/origin story of a character outside of the context of the original franchise, only instead of seeing the beginnings of the toy we grew to know in Toy Story, we're watching the "real" Buzz Lightyear. Everything from stark skepticism to sheer optimism was in play, as this was new ground for the computer animated dream makers.
Having trod the path that director/co-writer Angus MacLane used to explore such a concept, I can safely say that Lightyear honors and enhances its timeless character, and in an excitingly fresh manner. Naturally the part of this formula that needs restating is exactly what Lightyear’s initial title cards spell out for everyone watching.
This is the sci-fi movie that sparked young Andy’s imagination in the Toy Story world, inspiring him to want the resulting tie-in product. In other words, we’re watching the “real” Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) on a quest in the name of science and Star Command. This origin story introduces our Space Ranger to a handful of new friends (KeKe Palmer, Dale Soules and Taika Waititi), who he’ll team up with to defeat his freshly minted ultimate nemesis: the evil Zurg (James Brolin).
Even the most cynical Pixar fan should be impressed by how Lightyear uses its novel premise.
Lightyear’s very meta premise could have been used for laughs, winking and nodding at the character of Buzz as we’ve seen him in Toy Story. Some may have even thought that this was the strategy that this movie's story movie would have taken, akin to Pixar’s “outtake reels” where the characters of movies like A Bug’s Life are really just hired actors. That is the polar opposite of what Angus MacLane, as well as story/screenwriting collaborators Matthew Aldrich and Jason Headley, decided to do.
While Lightyear has tons of easter eggs, plot points and even set dressings reminiscent of the Star Wars and Alien franchises, it never wholesale steals from either of those worlds. Using those sagas as inspiration, the real story at the heart of everything is Buzz’s obsession with completing his mission. In its own neat sort of way, the crazed mission oriented mindset of the Buzz toy from Toy Story makes even more sense after seeing Lightyear.
Going into this movie, I’d heard some fellow critics mentioning that they actually cried during Lightyear. That’s where even the skeptic in me took a moment, as I wasn’t sure what they could have done to elicit such a response. While I don’t doubt Pixar’s ability to make people cry, this scenario in particular took me by surprise, as what starts as a rousing space adventure version of The Right Stuff, or even dare I say Top Gun, takes a full turn into Up territory. Even using its own playbook, the team at Pixar didn’t phone in the emotion, and that's part of what nails Lightyear’s tone and texture so wonderfully.
Chris Evans' Buzz Lightyear leads a cast of lovable and exciting characters, with a surprise standout almost stealing the entire show.
Chris Evans being the latest actor to voice Buzz Lightyear almost felt like type casting upon announcement. To some, the decision may have been easy to draft the man who played the MCU’s stoic Captain America as the “serious” version of Lightyear’s protagonist. And yet, this version of Buzz is more complicated than people might expect, with a huge chip on his shoulder that ends up being the crux of his narrative.
Just as the story to this sci-fi adventure offers different textures to the character of Buzz Lightyear, Lightyear gives Chris Evans something fresh to work with. Again, this is the movie that inspired the Toy Story action figure, so Luke Skywalker on screen is clearly going to act differently from his licensed Kenner counterpart. While Evans certainly gets moments that invoke Tim Allen’s original performance, this isn’t a cover version of Buzz Lightyear we’re watching.
The same goes for James Brolin’s Zurg, who pretty much gets a page one rewrite as a character. Forget what you know from Toy Story 2 or even Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, as the circumstances surrounding Zurg are quite surprising in Lightyear. With a new enemy to stand up against, Buzz Lightyear also needs some new friends; which is something this film definitely excels at.
Playing the trio of Maurice, Izzy, and Darby respectively, Taika Waititi, Keke Palmer and Dale Soules each bring a unique attitude to the handful of Junior Rangers teaming up with Buzz. Running the gamut between comedic relief, heroic inspiration and totally badass action, the actors make for an impressive dream steam when tied together with Chris Evans’ self-serious hero.
But trust me when I tell you that the hype surrounding Buzz’s robotic cat companion SOX (Peter Sohn) is absolutely worth buying into. This character almost steals the entire movie, showing yet again how taking the right archetype and nailing it through a fresh take makes Lightyear soar pretty high. What could have been a simple dispenser of one jokey catchphrase is shown with just as much depth as the humans he follows around.
Lightyear borrows from Pixar’s past, through the lens of the present, to make a very interesting future.
Reimagining Buzz Lightyear was a task that could have gone disastrously wrong, as meta-narratives like Lightyear don’t always stick the landing. What could have been a one-off that proved why these sorts of movies shouldn’t be made has ended up being a supremely surprising success. Borrowing from Pixar’s past, and showing it through the lens of the present, we’re given a film that could lead to a very interesting future.
It’s a little bit rocky at the start, as the proper tone takes a little while to be set into motion. Once Lightyear finds its lane, it doesn’t stop, zooming straight through an adventure dealing with true blue hero stuff. While it may not reach infinity, the finished story absolutely goes beyond what one could have expected. By time I had reached the ending, I was already excited to see where the sequels could go, grinning at the final shot as if it was my first time watching Toy Story.
Yes, Lightyear will make you will believe that this toy can fly. That being said, it’s an adventure that takes pieces of the best emotional storytelling from Pixar, and gels it properly with all the adventure, action and humor you could want. You can definitely see why Andy would have wanted a Buzz Lightyear for his birthday, and new generations of kids are about to demand the same. Only this time, there’s definitely going to be a lot of SOX toys in those shopping carts as well.
CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.