Lightyear has a pretty original concept for a movie based on a pre-existing character. Onscreen text informs us that in 1995, Andy, the little boy from Toy Story, got a toy based on his favorite movie. That toy, of course, was a Buzz Lightyear action figure, and this is the movie Andy went to see. Despite the novelty value of that premise, it's both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it puts Buzz in a whole new world, rather than just going back to the Toy Story well one more time. A curse in that Lightyear is very tonally different, so the Space Ranger doesn't feel at all like the character we've come to know and love.
Buzz (now voiced by Chris Evans) has gotten his whole crew marooned on a foreign planet. Feeling terrible, he vows to colleague Alisha Hawthorn (Uzo Aduba) that he'll rectify the situation. Doing that entails building a power source that can get their downed ship up to a particularly high speed. He tests the source they develop in his smaller ship, only to come back from each trip to discover that several years have passed for everyone else, and only a few hours have passed for him. Buzz tries multiple times, getting far enough into the future that Alisha has gotten old and passed away.
Giving up seems like an option, until he meets Izzy (Kiki Palmer), Alisha's granddaughter. She's one of three people left on the planet, the others being fellow Space Ranger rookies Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel (Dale Soules). Together with robotic feline Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz comes to believe that he might be able to wind back all the trouble he caused. First, though, he and his new pals will have to defeat the evil Zurg (James Brolin).
In the Toy Story pictures, Buzz Lightyear was a comically narcissistic figure who still had a kind heart deep inside. That wouldn't fly for Lightyear, obviously. This new movie portrays him as a serious, heroic type, saddled with guilt over how he robbed his colleagues of years of their lives. That alone makes this a picture more appropriate for slightly older kids. Younger ones might be confused about why Buzz isn't Buzz. As for the plot, it has its share of light, humorous moments, but by and large it's an action-packed space adventure. I can't help wondering if it would have been smarter to just make it a non-Buzz Lightyear project. Having a beloved character not sounding or behaving like himself is slightly disconcerting. I found myself intermittently experiencing mild distraction during the first half-hour or so.
Once you get past that incongruity, Lightyear is quite fun. Action scenes are inventively conceived, especially one in which the characters have to traverse a field full of menacing bugs before their invisibility devises run out. Another scene, where the characters get stuck in “security cones” and have to work together to escape, is similarly clever. Sox provides moments of humor, coughing up tranquilizer darts in lieu of hairballs and offering comic quips after some of the narrow escapes Buzz and crew make. This being a Pixar movie, the animation is typically beautiful, too.
The best thing in Lightyear is the surprisingly mature story. Buzz has to confront the fact that his error left a lot of people stranded far away from home. He worries about what they missed out on. Over time, he must learn to accept that they still had lives, even finding happiness in a situation they initially didn't want. If anything, the movie could have gone deeper into that idea. Potential existed for the ending to pack the sort of emotional punch all four of the Toy Storys had. Although it doesn't quite get there, that theme is still sufficient to add depth to the adventure.
All in all, Lightyear is another solid Pixar release – not one of their top-tier films, but certainly an enjoyable way to spend 105 minutes. In a time when studios are content to churn out more of the same in their franchises, having one that takes risks, whether they all pay off or not, is refreshing.
out of four
Lightyear is rated PG for action/peril. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.