Lightyear (United States, 2022)

June 17, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lightyear Poster

When one considers their mostly-exemplary catalogue, Pixar Studios deserves the benefit of the doubt. So, when sitting down to watch Lightyear, I did my best to curb my cynical bent for something that, at least on the surface, has all the earmarks of a crass money-grab. The Toy Story franchise has proven to be a cash cow for the studio and its master, Disney. So, when a hit is desperately needed, where better to go? After all, the completely unnecessary Toy Story 4 became the highest grossing member of the franchise’s titles. Although there are rumors of a Toy Story 5 on the drawing board, that’s not what this movie is. Lightyear is a spin-off prequel – the story of the “real” space ranger before he became immortalized as a toy action figure. If there’s potential in the idea, the animation wizards at Pixar failed to unlock it. The movie is visually impressive but emotionally inert. It features enough eye candy to keep most kids engaged and boasts just enough heft that adults won’t spend 100 minutes looking at their watches. It is, in short, a perfectly adequate family film. However, with the exception of the Cars movies, adequate isn’t a word that has often been used in conjunction with major Pixar theatrical releases.

The movie starts out in weird meta territory with a caption that informs us that the movie we’re about to see is the same one that Andy saw back in 1995 – the one that fired his imagination in advance of getting the Buzz Lightyear toy. That’s the only reference to Toy Story; the movie desperately wants to stand on its own despite having appropriated one of the major characters from the franchise.

In terms of story, Lightyear basically takes Generic Sci-Fi Narrative #2 and grafts elements of Star Wars and Star Trek onto it. It’s the kind of thing that, except for a few small quirks, pretty much writes itself and there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, often done better. If one was to make a drinking game out of the number of intentional and unintentional references, everyone watching would be passed out before the halfway point. Kids, of course, won’t be bothered by the nagging sense of familiarity.

In Toy Story, Buzz was presented as something of a loveable blowhard who, during the course of the movie, formed a bond with Woody and the other toys. In Lightyear, the “blowhard” aspect remains intact but there’s considerably less that could be called “loveable.” Buzz is more than a little arrogant and narrow-minded and the word “incompetent” also comes to mind. His various friends and foes aren’t able to soften his rough edges as effectively as Woody. Despite saying “To infinity and beyond!” a half-dozen times, Buzz doesn’t feel entirely like Buzz. Perhaps that’s the point.

Lightyear introduces us to Buzz (Chris Evans), by this time a Galactic Ranger in Star Command, when he crash-lands an exploration spaceship on a habitable planet. The 1500+ crewmembers on board create a colony and go about the business of building a community while Buzz executes a number of tests of unstable hyperspace fuel cells with the goal of getting everyone home. However, since Buzz’s test flights take him close to the speed of light, he ages more slowly than those on the planet and their lifetimes pass while Buzz barely ages. His commander and best friend, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), has a child and granddaughter. Others in the colony age and die of natural causes while their families grow up. By the time Buzz and his robot cat, Sox (Peter Sohn), discover the formula to stabilize the fuel, the men and women living in the colony no longer want to leave. But, against the orders of his new commanding officer, Buzz tests the stable fuel. It works but pushes him ahead 22 years. Upon his return, he learns that the planet has been invaded by a robot army led by the menacing Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Buzz joins forces with Alisha’s adult granddaughter, Izzy, and her two compatriots, Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel (Dale Soules), with the goal of defeating Zurg and liberating the colony.

The film’s animation is “big screen” and looks great in a theater. Digital animation has long since reached a status quo where visual improvements are minor; Lightyear proves that, although Pixar may no longer be top-flight in the story/characterization departments, it remains at that level for technical aspects. The voice acting is fine with the possible exception of Peter Sohn’s Sox, who lacks a snarkiness that would have made the feline more amusing. Sohn’s interpretation is disappointingly bland. Then there’s the question of why Tim Allen was replaced by Chris Evans.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, director Angus MacLane tried his best to provide an artistic motivation for the change, saying “Tim's version of Buzz is a little goofier and is a little dumber, and so he is the comic relief. In this film, Buzz is the action hero… Chris Evans has the gravitas and that movie-star quality that our character needed.” That isn’t an explanation, however; it’s a disingenuous rationalization. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to recognize that the real reason is likely rooted in box office potential – there’s little doubt that Chris “Captain America” Evans is a bigger draw than Tim “Home Improvement” Allen. Had the reverse been true, Allen would have returned to provide Buzz’s voice for a fifth film.

Lightyear becomes the second consecutive unnecessary Toy Story­-related film but the almost-guaranteed financial success augers sequels in an industry that has become dominated by inflating IPs and enhancing brands. Had there been more to Lightyear than a retread of sci-fi cliches with a beloved character, I would have been less disappointed. The movie’s sweet spot lies in the age 5-10 bracket. Adults may find some nostalgia-based enjoyment but this variety of motion picture emphasizes a disturbing trend for family films in general and Pixar productions in particular.

Lightyear (United States, 2022)

Director: Angus MacLane
Cast: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin
Home Release Date: 2022-09-13
Screenplay: Angus MacLane & Matthew Aldrich & Jason Headley
Cinematography: Jeremy Lasky, Ian Megibben
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Home Release Date: 2022-09-13
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated/Action
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1