Pixar’s other major release for this year (after the delightful “Turning Red”) arrives in theaters with “Lightyear,” answering a question no one was really asking. Ostensibly telling the story behind the Buzz Lightyear toy that Andy is gifted in the original “Toy Story” from 1995, it’s actually the “movie” that “Andy” watched and fell in love with at the time. It’s perhaps Pixar’s most conventional release in its 27-year history.
The story begins as the renowned Space Ranger goes off course during an expedition to find habitable planets. Due to a miscalculation on Lightyear’s part, the entire massive interstellar ship and her crew become marooned on a hostile planet some 4.2 million light-years from Earth. Feeling responsible, Lightyear doggedly makes every attempt to right his mistake, though it costs him due to time dilation: Every attempt at breaking light speed means when he returns, everyone but him has aged several years. His only constants are his best friend and commander, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), and a robot toy/assistant/counselor, SOX (Peter Sohn). Complications arise when Zurg, a large robot with an army of soldier drones, makes the scene with an unknown agenda. Alone, desperate, out of his depth, Lightyear’s only option is a crew of intrepid amateurs and/or rejects known as the Junior Zap Patrol.
The first feature fully directed by Pixar veteran Angus MacLane (who also has a story credit), it’s produced by Galyn Susman, and between the two of them they already have experience in the “Toy Story” toy box, having handled a few of the straight-to-streaming specials like “Toy Story of Terror” and “Toy Story That Time Forgot,” so they’re on comfortable, familiar ground with “Lightyear.”
Calling it the most conventional Pixar film isn’t an insult; it’s the closest to a straightforward action/adventure story they’ve done, with an almost retro/pulp flavor in the styling and designs (certainly in the outfits, ships, robots and creatures), though the sensibility is a little more modern, and the humor is certainly classic Pixar. Another signature element is the found families theme, as Buzz’s initial coldness to the Junior Zap Patrol melts by film’s end.
What is surprising and unexpected are some of the other themes tackled in “Lightyear,” which are deeper and more complex than are standard for a film still generally aimed at youngsters. The time dilation sees Lightyear watching everyone he knows getting older and moving on without him, but he can’t shake the guilt he feels at being responsible for everyone’s situation. In this it reminds of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” as well as certain classic episodes of “Futurama.” A dilemma presented in the second half calls to mind a similar problem faced by the heroes in “Avengers: Endgame,” when faced with the ability to correct one’s mistakes, but coming with a cost that may make it not worth the correction. These are good, important questions used to challenge the character of Buzz Lightyear, since he’s presented as a bit of a prototypical ’80s gung-ho throwback with a dash of jingoism. Will he be able to adapt, evolve? Join the rest of the human race, the ones he feels responsible for?
Thus the casting of Chris Evans as Lightyear is a novel choice, as he does exude a kind of everyman charm and confidence believable in a Space Ranger. Other members of the cast include Keke Palmer as Izzy, Taika Waititi as Mo Morrison and Josh Brolin as Zurg, making a Captain America/Thanos reunion of sorts.
“Lightyear’s” only real misstep seems to be “hero moments” for *parts* of Andy’s toy, namely a laser blaster, the pop-out wings, etc. It makes sense in a macro context but not in the world of the movie’s story, and stand out as disjointed, which pulls you from the narrative. There’s no emotional attachment or even prior established importance given to those instruments, so their highlights are jarring. Apart from that, “Lightyear” is a fine addition to Pixar’s library; perhaps not God-tier, S-level Pixar, but entertaining, thrilling and moving in turns, if in ways we’ve come to expect.