"Lightyear" is now the 26 feature animated film to come out of Pixar Studios. The brand still represents the cream of the crop when it comes to animation, and while many of its titles have lived up to the reputation in both style and story, some have not...and when a Pixar movie doesn't land, it has quite often been a sequel or a spin-off (while Toy Story 2, 3 and 4 all delivered, many other sequels - like the Cars movies, "Finding Dory" or "Monsters University," have not).
"Lightyear" is the first feature-film to be spun-off of the original Pixar gem, "Toy Story." It's apparently the movie that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy in the first place (which is why this Buzz is voiced by Captain America himself, Chris Evans, and not Tim Allen who has voiced every toy incarnation of the space-travelling hero). It's a beautifully-rendered piece of animation that once again pushes animation forward, which is a stellar feat considering that it feels at this point like we've seen it all. But unlike several of Pixar's best films that contain deeper meaning, or powerful messages for kids and grown-ups alike, "Lightyear" is a bit muddled and "light" on nuance.
Still, as space adventures go, "Lightyear" is a crowd-pleaser, and probably lands somewhere in the upper-middle of the Pixar pack of films.
Chris Evans is fine as Buzz Lightyear, however he doesn't inject even an ounce of the level of personality that Tim Allen had into the now iconic character. Lightyear and his crew are stranded on a barely inhabitable alien planet, and as it is explained to us, a rocket trip around the Sun at high-speeds is apparently the key to finding their way back to Earth. As the best pilot of the lot, Lightyear mans the mission, but his first attempt fails. When he returns, what was just a matter of hours in his own life ended up being four-years-worth of time to those on the planet.
His closest ally and former Space Ranger partner is Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), who ages four-years-older ever time Buzz attempts the mission. Buzz becomes obsesses with succeeding, but failure after failure means that his counterparts grow older and older. Before he knows it, Commander Hawthorne is gone, and her now-adult son (voiced by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is heading things. As Buzz stays laser-focused on his space mission, life has literally passed him by.
All the while, a cute robot cat named SOX (Peter Sohn) is deployed to help Buzz, and a breakthrough leads to Buzz finally succeeding. But when he returns with what is needed to finally get his crew off of the planet, he discovers 40+ years have passed, and there is a new threat looming: An alien-spacecraft led by the villainous and mysterious Zurg is preventing the colony from ever returning home.
Buzz, along with SOX at his side, teams up with a rag-tag crew of wannabe space rangers, so untrained that they only dream of one day being recognized at the rank of "rookie." One of them bears the name Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), the granddaughter of Buzz's old partner. Then there is Mo (Taika Waititi) who gives up easily, and Darby (Dale Soules), an old woman who just so happens to also be an ex-convict. The newly assembled team needs to defeat Zurg in order to save themselves and find a way back to Earth after all these years.
The space-time-aging concept in "Lightyear" might be a bit too much for younger audiences, and it even left my adult-sized head spinning. But the crew is all endearing in their own ways, and the over-arching story is actually quite simplistic (good guys must defeat bad guys). The pacing is great and there are some good laughs, along with some exciting action. It's no surprise that the young Andy from the original "Toy Story" viewed "Lightyear" as his generation's "Star Wars."
Speaking of "Star Wars," the absolute best part of "Lightyear" are the several references to films and characters from earlier franchises and films...all included for the amusement of the adult who will inevitably be forced into watching this movie with youngsters in tow. There are numerous "on-the-nose" as well as subtle references to "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica," "Lost in Space" and other influential works of science fiction. Even the character of SOX, who many are calling the breakout star of this film, is fashioned as a direct nod to the mechanical owl from the 1981 "Clash of the Titans." There's even a shot of the Lightyear crew - all decked out in their astronaut outfits and walking in slow-motion - that is a direct call-back to the iconic silhouette shot from "Armageddon." These are in addition to the many direct references to Buzz's character, dialogue and mannerisms from the "Toy Story" films.
"Lightyear" doesn't quite work as a message movie, but as a space adventure it soars. It loses points only when compared to other Pixar films, some of which are among the greatest animated/family films of all-time...that's a high bar to clear.
"Lightyear" shouldn't be criticized simply because it's not as good as "Inside Out," "Toy Story," or "WALL-E," because what films are? On its own, it definitely flies high...whether it takes you "to infinity and beyond" is a question that I'll leave up to you.
Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure.
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Uzo Aduba, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Bill Hader, James Brolin, Efrin Ramirez.
Directed by Angus MacLane ("Finding Dory").
"Pixar's Lightyear" is in theaters everywhere on Friday, June 17th, 2022.
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