He was the delusional do-gooder that made up one half of Pixar’s O.G. dynamic duo, the Toy Story space cadet with the square chin, a savior complex and an unstoppable quest to rid the galaxy of the evil Emperor Zurg. His name was Buzz Lightyear, defender of decency and good dentistry throughout the cosmos, and thanks to his chemistry with a cowpoke named Woody, this popular (and highly merchandisable) plastic-fantastic hero became an interstellar superstar. He’s more recognizable as a brand ambassador than Pixar’s signature animated desk lamp, as well as the company’s reverse Pinocchio — an action figure based on a fictional movie character who transformed into an actual movie character beloved enough to become a real-life action figure. To Intellectual Property, and Beyond!
Yet with the possible exception of Disney board members and desperate imagineers, it’s tough to picture anybody clamoring for a big-screen Buzz origin story. It’s also odd to think that a company like Pixar, while anything but sequel-shy, would devote time and resources away from their other, more “personal” projects to develop what initially sounded like nothing more than a quick, superficial cash-in. When the film was first announced and the news spread that Chris Evans would voice the “younger” (?) Buzz, you could practically hear the sound of snarky laughter and knives being sharpened. So, what, we zoom into a factory assembly line, and then 12 inches of plastic gets a paint job, and suddenly we hear, in the ultra-sincere tones associated with Captain America, “By the mighty power of Hasbro, I am alive! …” ? GTFO.
Lightyear, thankfully, takes a different and slightly more tongue-in-cheek tack. We’re informed via opening title cards that long ago, in the year 1995 A.D., a young boy named Andy Davis went to see a movie about a space ranger. Thrilled and delighted by spending two hours watching those shadows on a wall, he then purchased an action figure based on the hero of said film. This, we are told, is that movie. As in: We’re now watching the same mid-Nineties sci-fi blockbuster that inspired Andy’s Buzz-worthy obsession. Neat!
It’s a high-concept setup which falls apart quicker than Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead during a 7.5 earthquake, and one that virtually does not matter. You are always aware that you are watching what, in so many ways, feels like a corporate Mouse House flex — a sort of exercise in I.P. cherry-picking that borrows from the deep benches of one of the company’s many subsidiaries and plops a character into a slightly generic template. You’ll also find yourself slowly warming to what could have been a far more soulless product than what you get here, where everything seems to go down remarkably easy. It is, in essence, a light, breezy, better-than-average Disney movie that just happens to feature a most-valuable Pixar player, while barely feeling like a Pixar movie at all.
As for Buzz, he’s still the arrogant and extremely serious guy you know, and still prone to Captain Kirk-like monologuing for no real reason whatsoever; not even his fellow rangers understand his need for turning every stray observation into melodramatic mission logs. (“You’re narrating again,” he’s informed as he chatters away into his wrist recorder. “It helps me focus,” he meekly replies.) Thanks to Buzz’s hubris, he and a number of fellow astronauts and crew members are marooned on an island populated by tentacled beasts. They establish a base camp, with the hope that Lightyear can fix a broken crystal that will allow everyone to leave. His commander/best friend, Alisha (Uzo Aduba), authorizes a four-minute test flight around the planet’s orbit so he can attempt successful hyperdrive jumps. When he returns, however, four years, three months, and two days have passed on the planet. The colony’s base seems a lot more built out, and a lot less temporary. Undaunted, Buzz keeps tweaking his starcraft and testing their exit plan. And every time he returns barely mussed from his seemingly brief jaunts, time has slipped a little further and further away into the future….
These sequences are the trace evidence that Pixar had a hand in this endeavor, as old friends get older, babies turn into college graduates, camps turn into cities, and once-bustling offices become vacant rooms. Director Angus MacLane — an animation veteran who’s been with the company since the 1997 short Geri’s Game — and his fellow screenwriters Matthew Aldrich (Coco) and Jason Headley (Onward) work the emotional pressure points here, offering a kinder, gentler version of the famously tear-duct-clearing Up opener as life moves on in Buzz’s many absences. And it’s after another, definitely unauthorized but successful test flight that our man Lightyear returns to find the now-domed home base under attack by killer robots. The only help he’s got when it comes to saving everyone from certain doom is a ragtag group of has-beens and never-weres, led by a young woman named Izzy (Keke Palmer). The fact that she happens to be the granddaughter of Alisha and Alisha’s longtime wife only adds to the urgency of Buzz’s mission. (We personally don’t remember big-budget studio tentpoles from the mid-Nineties — which, again, is what Lightyear is allegedly supposed to be — having such a progressive attitude toward same-sex marriages at the time, but perhaps our memories are fading. It remains a welcome addition to the Buzziverse canon, even if that sentiment is regrettably not shared by all.)
The fact that a certain arch-nemesis may be behind the attacks and is actively searching for Buzz also comes into play, and it’s at this point that Lightyear switches into something that’s all momentum, set pieces, chase scenes, sight gags and standard-issue sound and fury. Any attempts at moralistic takeaways are limited to variations on “teamwork makes the dream work” and “you can’t enjoy the future if you don’t let go of the past.” Chris Evans does a great job of both referencing Tim Allen’s old-school Buzz and sounding like someone parodying the rugged tones of Chris Evans, Handsome MCU Movie Star. Taika Waititi voices an incompetent boob who has a knack for conveniently screwing things up when the plot requires it, and is less a character than a delivery service for the actor-director’s wacky, eccentric comic relief. We’re not saying that multiverses may be involved, but we’re not not saying they don’t play a part here, either.
There’s also a robot cat named Sox, who serves as Buzz’s purring, all-purpose watchdog/companion/walking-and-talking hard drive, but whose actual presence is predicated on being the movie’s one saving grace. As voiced with impeccable timing and a deadpan wit by animator Peter Sohn, Sox is hands-down the breakout star of this semi-prequel, equal parts awww and ahahaha, a delightful creation served up franchise-ready ASAP; you can probably expect to see Sox in any number of upcoming Disney+ shorts, or gracing any number of shirts (and mugs and backpacks and key rings, etc. — perhaps even, ironically, on socks!) throughout the known galaxy.
A colleague wondered if the feline android with the killer timing had been cooked up in a lab for the sole purpose of breaking down her defenses to this exercise in brand extension, to which the only sane reply is: Resistance was always going to be futile. Lightyear is definitely a lark that’s fast enough and fun enough to keep your attention, if adding next to nothing to the Toy Story legacy or your feelings about the mint-condition guardian of the galaxy or Pixar as a whole past an adorable, tranquilizer-dart spewing cybertabby. It doesn’t want or feel the need to go anywhere near infinity, much less beyond. It’s happy to modestly stop right at “90 or so minutes you won’t actively regret,” with future detours to the Disney gift shop scheduled along the way.