While Good, ‘Lightyear’ Lacks the Charm and Brilliance of Other Pixar Offerings
At the beginning of Lightyear, we are informed that this is a movie about the story that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story (1995) movie. It’s fair to ask – is this a spin-off, a prequel, or an origin story? The answer is a dash of all the above, yet also not exactly any of those. As with all Pixar features, the pedigree is beyond reproach. Writer-director Angus MacLane was the co-director on Finding Dory (2016), while his co-writer here is Jason Headley (Onward, 2020), and the story was developed by Matthew Aldrich (Coco, 2017).
Following the murkiness of the prologue, he looks like Buzz and acts like Buzz, but that’s Chris Evans (Captain America), not the familiar voice of Tim Allen, as Buzz Lightyear filing his Mission Log to Star Command. We adjust quickly enough, although it is a bit jarring at first. Buzz is headstrong and not always the best at following orders. It’s that mentality and an error in judgment that results in those on the mission becoming stranded on a distant planet. Time and space theories are likely to baffle the younger viewers, as the various test flights Buzz take find him basically maintaining his current age, while those from the original mission age and ultimately die. This includes his mentor and friend Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), whom, with each of his return flights, Buzz watches her age, marry a woman, have kids, and get sick. Again, it’s kind of jarring, but Pixar has never shied away from life’s tough moments, and that won’t do so here.
It’s on his return from one unexplained extra-long flight when Buzz encounters Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha. Izzy is trying to follow in her grandmother’s Space Ranger footsteps, and with her rag-tag band of misfits, Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steele (Dale Soules), they help Buzz avoid his first encounter with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin).
Completing this new group is SOX (Peter Sohn), the robot cat previously issued to Buzz for emotional comfort. SOX is the latest in a long line of scene-stealing Disney fur-baby sidekicks, even if SOX happens to be mechanical. SOX is also the best thing about the film, other than the spectacular visuals and the late-in-the-story appearance of Commander Burnside, whose instantly recognizable voice belongs to Isiah Whitlock Jr. (and no, the colorful word Mr. Whitlock has made his own in so many roles does not appear here, to anyone’s surprise).
No voice by John Ratzenberger (at least that I heard) and no Pizza Planet (at least that I spotted), but more importantly, the film simply lacks the charm and story-telling brilliance that Pixar has spoiled us with over the years. We never really connect with the characters, even Buzz seems quite aloof. Michael Giacchino does serve up another terrific score on the heels of his work on The Batman and Jurassic World Dominion, and the visual effects really are top-notch. Pixar films consistently deliver a message and here it seems to be that collaboration and friendship create strength in numbers. Lightyear doesn’t go to infinity and beyond, but even the lesser Pixar projects have something to offer.