- Directed by: Angus MacLane
- Starring: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, James Brolin, Taika Waititi, Peter Sohn
- Comedy/Adventure | PG | 1 hr 45 min
Before Lightyear’s first scene unfurls, a plain white caption against a pitch-black background informs its audience that what they’re about to see is the movie, within the Toy Story universe, that launched the Buzz Lightyear toy to number one on Andy’s birthday wish list.
Well, that fictional movie’s marketing team must have had one hell of a budget, because Lightyear offers little explanation as to why Andy so memorably dived headfirst into Buzz Lightyear mania.
The opening caption’s retrospective failure is especially glaring given Top Gun: Maverick’s brilliant use of the same technique less than a month ago. Where Maverick’s caption immediately locks audiences into a specific, tangible atmosphere, Lightyear’s caption highlights the biggest questions on moviegoers’ minds: what is this, and why do I care?
Lightyear is ostensibly intended as a big-hearted space adventure starring Buzz Lightyear (voiced by a capably gallant Chris Evans) as he discovers that it’s a lot easier to accomplish a mission when you stop being so hard on yourself and trust your friends for help. Great premise, but Lightyear’s execution results in a frustrating failure to launch.
The biggest problem is its first 35-ish minutes where, thanks to some timey-wimey space shenanigans, Buzz is the only human character introduced that plays a role in the main plot. While an engaging-enough ragtag group of trainees (Keke Palmer’s Izzy Hawthore, Taika Waititi’s Mo, and Dale Soules’ Darby) is brought along eventually to help Buzz save the day, it’s far too late to make a real impact.
Because the film doesn’t introduce these characters early on, it’s an enormous ask to place emotional weight directly on their shoulders, and attempts to do so don’t deliver. Thank God for Buzz’s robot feline companion, Sox (Peter Sohn), who provides enough sight gags and one-liners to run away as Lightyear’s MVP.
The story choices certainly don’t help. Much of the film ends up feeling like a video game, with Buzz and his makeshift crew going from checkpoint to checkpoint, collecting items and certain power-ups to beat the final boss, alien robot Zurg (James Brolin). Frankly, it’s straight-up boring for long stretches, thanks to the lack of character development and the baffling decision to keep Buzz, a space ranger, grounded on a single, homogenous planet.
The always-reliable Pixar animation should have served as a redeeming factor, but there’s something lacking there, too. It’s not that the animation isn’t good; everything is undoubtedly polished and sometimes feints at something truly impressive, like when Buzz is zipping around at near-lightspeed and streaks of light dance across the mirrored glass of his helmet and cockpit.
It’s more that the animation tries to be cool rather than beautiful. ‘Cool’ in a sci-fi adventure story is the standard, and it’s hard not to compare Lightyear with foundational entries like Star Wars, Interstellar, and even something like Galaxy Quest. It’s not that Lightyear doesn’t try to get there; it does, but that’s inherently the problem. It’s extremely difficult to replicate the space ‘wow’ factor through animation when we have so many fascinating live-action (albeit computer-animated) examples.
Pixar is at its best when it’s beautiful, providing bona fide works of art with gorgeous depth and clarity. Just like with Lightyear’s story, its visuals just don’t quite get there, and it leaves the whole thing feeling thin.
It’s hard not to feel that Lightyear’s primary reason for existence is to jumpstart a Disney+ procedural that follows Buzz and friends on their space ranger adventures. It didn’t have to be that way, and it’s disappointing to see a studio like Pixar produce such a blatantly commercial and uninspiring product.
You can find more review from local movie critic Reed Ripley at Ripleysreviews.com