Lightyear : Movie Review
27 years ago, we were introduced to the mighty, buffoonish Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s seminal film Toy Story. A toy character who believed he was not a toy, but a daring Space Ranger… that couldn’t tell the difference between a laser and an LED. And the evolution of that specific character – as voiced by Tim Allen – is one of the best examples of how skillfully Pixar forms connections with their viewers, growing the character in maturity and wisdom as their audience grows in the same ways.
But what of the toy itself? Was it that year’s hot action figure? Or was Buzz from a cartoon or kid’s TV show that a child named Andy Davis loved so much that he forgot all about his beloved Sheriff Woody? In the opening text of Lightyear, we’re told that Andy saw a movie and became a fan of its main character… and that Lightyear – the very film we’re about to watch – was that movie.
A thrilling adventure in the tradition of some of the more forgotten Disney flicks where a hotshot pilot finds a new family (like The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark), Lightyear has more than enough action and emotional oomph expected from a Pixar movie. Vastly entertaining at best and overly formulaic at worst, Lightyear is the epitome of the modern-day Disney film, where character flaws and pivotal mistakes must be overcome triumphantly for maximum satisfaction while tying together deep-seated emotional arcs and personal journeys to make us internalize the universal struggle for success against the odds.
Lightyear has everything that makes a classic Pixar film: the tried-and-true underdog plot, where someone not suited for the task that lies ahead of them is forced to sink or swim; bravery in the face of insurmountable peril; the badly-timed blunder that causes a massive setback and a falling-out between friends; quirky characters that endear themselves quickly to audiences; and, of course, some of the most cutting-edge animation to wow and amaze.
But even though we find ourselves quickly at home with a character as familiar as Buzz Lightyear – voiced by Chris Evans in this outing to differentiate from the action figure character of the Toy Story films – we also find a certain going-through-the-motions feel that doesn’t make this film more than standard Pixar stock and trade. The plucky hero gets saddled with people well below his expertise level and has to make do with what he’s got? It’s not a case of “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”; it’s “been there, done that, and my kids are wearing the shirt I bought before I even met their mother.”
At question in this film are Buzz’s own capabilities and judgment, seeing how he’s responsible for crashing a generation ark on a hostile planet (which was decidedly not their destination) and destroying their precious fuel crystals capable of sustaining their faster-than-light travel. One of this film’s fantastic hooks lies in the fact that he has to repeatedly experiment with alternate fuel crystals, with each trip damning him to abide by time dilation and laws of relativity; every time he achieves faster-than-light speeds, a sizable amount of time passes on their new home. With each subsequent trip, he’s gone for minutes while four years pass on their planet, and he has to watch as his best friend and co-pilot Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) ages, has a family, and eventually dies.
The constant passage of time weighs heavy on him, and it’s to the credit of screenwriters Jason Headley and Angus MacLane (the latter of whom also directs) that they endow Buzz with such emotional baggage. Few films deal with this kind of time loss and its effects on our beings. It’s also a parallel to how our favorite Pixar characters seem to drop in on us from every now and again when new sequels are released. Our world and lives move on; we gain and lose family members over time; and we grow older while these characters we rely upon for entertainment never age.
To help Buzz deal with the passage of time, he’s given a robot cat companion named Sox (Peter Sohn, who I could’ve sworn sounded like Kevin Smith). As a joke, Buzz gives Sox the task of finding the formula for stable fuel crystals that can get the generation ark back on their journey… which is exactly what Sox proceeds to do over a span of 65 years (mere days or months for Buzz). But when Buzz uses these new crystals, he’s propelled 22 years into the future, with only Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), rebellious bomb maker Darby (Dale Soules), and fraidy-cat Mo (Taika Waiti) left to help him battle robot assailants who’ve attacked their settlement.
It’s all there – the fight for survival, the hope to correct one’s mistakes, and the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) who’s gunning for Sox’s fuel crystals and Buzz himself. By all reckoning, Lightyear has what it takes to be one of the grandest space operas this side of Star Wars. However, it loses itself in its formulaic trappings, content to be exactly like every Pixar film which came before it. Yeah, if it works, don’t break it, but at least try doing something to separate it and make it distinct.
And that something is its animation, which would probably prompt a hockey player named Shoresy to exclaim, “Ho-LY!” (But in a good way!) The lifelike visuals of Lightyear are every bit as astounding as you think they’d be. Opting for a more cinematic look, Lightyear‘s animation hums and throbs with realistic textures and film-like photography, tactile in its layers of film grain and depth. With the film’s many rack focuses and its captivating spatial presence, you’d think this wasn’t so much animated as it was motion-captured and rotoscoped at certain points; there are more shades of Robert Altman in the visual aspect of the filmmaking than one would expect from a film meant for kids.
This unique look is bolstered by the lived-in voice work of its principals. Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Dale Soules, and Taika Waititi elevate their characters well above the by-the-numbers screenplay, inviting us to run alongside them and welcoming us with bright, nuanced performances. Peter Sohn’s Sox is an unexpected delight, with Sohn wielding a memorable deadpan style which underscores how pivotal his character is to the proceedings. This is one of those films where choosing the actors based on quality – not star power – yields sizable dividends, and the filmmakers’ decisions are rewarded with every line delivered.
The animation and voice cast more than make up for the shortcomings of Lightyear’s average plot and script. Oddly enough, it doesn’t strike an awkward tone, as one might expect; instead, we’re engaged and fully immersed and invested in Buzz’s circumstance and the people who share his quest. As predictable and trite as Lightyear may be, there’s gorgeous artistry on offer which more than closes the gap between the written page and the fully produced. It’s enough to warrant repeat viewings, and it’s more than enough to earn your smiles and attention, especially with the warmth and goodwill it fosters.
MPA Rating: PG for action/peril.
Contains one mid-credits scene and two (yes, TWO) post-credits scenes.
Running time: 105 minutes.
Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.