Lightyear is candy-coated junk food, a blisteringly paced, high-speed ascent into Rollercoaster filmmaking. The concept behind the movie is that it is an actual film in the Toy Story universe, the movie itself inspiring the toy line in that world. We are told, through text at the beginning of the movie, that it is the favorite movie of a young Andy, thus explaining his desire to have a Buzz Lightyear toy. This inciting incident kicks off the plot in the original Toy Story. But Lightyear’s story, of course, is separate from all that. It is a fictional story within a fictional story, an origin tale that helps explains why Buzz Lightyear became a popular toy. The results are a story that plays things safe, but it does so in style.
The tale begins as Buzz (Chris Evans) and his buddy/partner Alisha (Uzo) explore a potentially habitable planet. Much like the Tim Allen-voiced toy, this Buzz is an overconfident/self-serious dork. He takes very stern voice log notes as he dramatically jumps, rolls, and hops around the planet, to Alisha’s bewilderment and amusement. However, one thing becomes clear quickly- the stoic space commander doesn’t do well in teams. So when an underling unexpectedly joins the mission, it throws Buzz off. The crew’s weaknesses are exposed when they encounter hostile lifeforms, instantly demanding an expedited escape from the planet. But Buzz’s belief in himself doesn’t pay off, and the mission ends with his colony stranded in this strange world.
In many ways, there’s a meta synergy between Lightyear and Toy Story. When we’re first introduced to the toy, he’s delusional and lacks the awareness to recognize the truth of his environment. Lightyear’s Buzz is similarly delusional, but it manifests itself in what is, ironically, Main Character Syndrome. He believes so strongly in his heroic ability that he mistakenly asserts he can go to Infinity and Beyond all by himself. This involves a mission where Buzz must test if he can get his ship to hit hyperspace, which is the key to getting the colony back home. However, after returning from each test, he discovers that the colony has aged rapidly while he remains the same. It’s essentially time travel.
After enough years have passed, he assembles a new crew: Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), Darby (Dale Soules), Mo (Taika Waititi), and a precocious robotic cat named Sox (Peter Sohn) that is not only very involved in this movie’s plot but is sure to fly off the shelves in toy stores. But perhaps I should use “crew” loosely, as Buzz repeatedly and passive-aggressively reminds his comrades that he doesn’t really need their help. However, his arrogance leads to unforeseen consequences when he encounters a force invading the colony, led by the mecha Emperor Zurg.
The movie is a success. Make no mistake about it. It distills the traits of space operas and blockbuster filmmaking into a zippy, fast-paced action romp that hardly gives you a chance to catch your breath. But Lightyear, just like the title character, has the main character problem. Mostly because in this movie, Buzz ends up fighting for something that doesn’t wholly belong to him. When the stakes get high, Buzz is the only thing standing in the way of a plot to wipe out the current timeline as we know it. But what’s at risk to be lost is of most importance to the tertiary characters in the story, as opposed to Buzz himself. For a movie named Lightyear, I can’t say we ever get to know Buzz Lightyear that well. His initial goal is to achieve hyperspace so he can get back home. But what does home mean to Buzz? What’s waiting for him? Who’s waiting for him? We don’t really find out.
Let’s compare it with another Pixar film, Up (2009). Both movies feature montages to set up a key romance that will end up being the backbone of the stories’ emotional stakes. But in Up, we follow the main character of Carl, who is most affected by the sense of loss and regret. Thus the weight of the story is greater. In Lightyear, we spend little time with the characters most affected by the movie’s underpinning drama. Thus Buzz’s journey feels like second-hand character development. This would be resolved by giving Buzz his own world to fight for, rather than fighting for someone else’s.
What does work well, even as it is plainly telegraphed throughout the entire 100-minute run time, is Buzz’s arc from semi-independent Space Ranger to the shepherd of a team. It’s unfortunate that Top Gun: Maverick already did this much better, but Buzz learns that his crises can only be solved by investing in the community of people closest to him. This starts with not taking himself so seriously, as pretension is an impossible task in the company of goofballs like Izzy, Darby, Sox, and the daffiest of them all – spazzy Mo. This is a silly tale, with slapstick and wry wit similar to that in the underrated The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021).
The film breezes by, but its tight runtime often results in the movie alternating from action setpiece to exposition, back to setpiece, back to exposition, and back again. However, it is admirable that Pixar and Disney give a lot of credit to the film’s young target audience, as the time travel elements may be a bit complex for viewers ten and under. But kids can be trusted with a lot if we give them the opportunity. Even if they don’t pick up on all of the science fiction jargon, there are plenty of dazzling effects, whip-fast camera movements, and physical comedy to keep them entertained. In that vein, this is convincing as a movie that would be the favorite film of a young Andy. There’s not a lot of depth to the title character, but Buzz Lightyear’s action heroics stand tall. He is the Space Ranger we’ve imagined, but we haven’t yet seen what Infinity and Beyond look like in this world.