When Pixar first announced it was working on a Buzz Lightyear spin-off movie based on the Toy Story character, I’ll admit I was sceptical. However, I slowly came round to the idea – helped in part by the trailer that featured David Bowie crooning, a decent helping of Toy Story-based nostalgia, and some truly out-of-this-world visuals. After all, Pixar doesn’t make bad animated movies.
What’s becoming clear, however, is that the studio that was once synonymous with some of the best movies ever made does indeed make ‘fine’ films. Lightyear is a perfectly fine movie. Some individual elements work, some don’t, but the end product fails to become a cohesive whole.
There is no doubt that Lightyear is a gorgeous-looking movie, and the talented cast manages to infuse the characters with some life. Still, Lightyear is let down by a threadbare story that lacked that quintessential Pixar magic and left me feeling as empty as the vacuum of space. Still, At least the robot cat was entertaining.
Lightyear is a de-fictionalised version of Andy from Toy Story’s favourite sci-fi action movie that features everyone’s favourite Space Ranger, Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans). After marooning his crew on a hostile alien planet, the film follows Buzz as he experiments with a volatile new fuel that will allow his ship to reach hyperspace and help his crew escape this barren world.
As Buzz works to complete the mission and get his crew home, though, the effects of relative speed (basically, time moves slower for Buzz as he approaches the speed of light) time begins to slip by quicker and quicker. Even worse, a mysterious new enemy known only as Zurg wants the hyperspace fuel for his own insidious ends.
Ok, let’s get Lightyear’s biggest issue out of the way first so we can crack on with the things about this film that are actually good. Lightyear’s script feels like a first draft made up of leftover sci-fi cliches and tropes. That sounds harsh, we know, but it does. In part, this is because of the film’s very nature. After all, it’s meant to be a pastiche of some of the best science fiction movies ever made, like Star Wars, Interstellar, and 2001: A Space Oddysey.
Yet the reliance on those films as a framework means that the overall plot feels very formulaic. You can see where Buzz’s adventure is going straight from the off and indeed what the lesson he’ll learn along the way is. It’s a real shame because Pixar is many things, but they’ve never been predictable, and Lightyear’s by-the-numbers story and moral message lets them down.
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Now I will say there is one very effective moment that we won’t spoil for you, that did feel like a classic Pixar gut-punch, but it was disappointingly fleeting, and the film quickly resumed its perfectly adequate sci-fi adventure with a few cute references to Toy Story. Disappointingly, though, the action never really reaches the heights of something like Spider-Verse or The Mitchells vs the Machines.
A film is much more than just its story, though, and Lightyear does excel in some areas, most notably in its visuals. It’s breathtakingly beautiful at times – the kaleidoscope of colour Buzz experiences when he breaks the hyperspeed barrier may owe a lot to Kubrick, but it’s still awe-inspiring – and also incredibly detailed.
The suits, ships, and planets wonderfully blend photorealism with Pixar’s trademark style of animation. The lighting as well is extremely effective, especially in the third act when Buzz makes it to Zurg’s ship for the final confrontation.
While the characterisation of some of the supporting characters leaves a little to be desired, Buzz himself is pretty well fleshed out and is a flawed but likeable guy. His drive is admirable. He’s just a little too mission focussed, and while you can see the revelation that he needs to rely more on his team coming from a mile off, Evans does a decent enough job selling you on the turn.
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Similarly, the supporting cast – Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, and Uzo Aduba – all deserve praise for their performances which put a bit more meat on their characters than the script did. However, the real MVP of Lightyear is Peter Sohn as Sox, Buzz’s robotic therapy cat.
Sox is far and away Lightyear’s best character. He’s funny, compassionate, and adorable. Basically, he’s a triple-threat animated personality. Sohn does a really good job in keeping the literally emotionless robo-cat an empathetic and endearing sidekick. We’d like more Sox in future, please, Pixar.
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All in all, Lightyear has its pleasures, and I’ve no doubt that younger audiences who maybe are more aware of Toy Story, and less aware of the sci-fi films it’s based on, will love this family movie. For adult fans, though I don’t think they’ll regret watching it, they’re just unlikely to remember it after passing through the front doors of the cinema.
Lightyear lands in theatres on June 17.
Lightyear is a beautiful movie but its storytelling never quite takes off.