It’s funny how Pixar’s success all started with “Toy Story.” Not only did one pull of a string change the history of animation with its use of computer-generated visuals, but it also changed its culture as more animation studios gravitated toward the technology for the storytelling medium. And now we get to see how far “Toy Story’s” legacy has come with “Lightyear.” The film is a loose spinoff that distances itself from the toy story franchise by being a film about the title character that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy Andy received on his birthday in 1995.
Of course, it would have been easy for there to be another Toy Story film featuring the same characters going on some adventure that would expand the franchise’s mythology and enrich the character work we all know and love. But giving Lightyear his own origin story gives us a new perspective on the space ranger who was in the Toy Story films mostly for comedic purposes. So now Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) gets to have his own hero’s journey as he sets course to infinity and beyond.
“Lightyear’s” opening exposition tells audiences that in 1995, Andy received a Buzzlight year action figure toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. And the movie that we are about to watch is that movie. So with those minor expository details about the film’s place within the Toy Story universe out of the way, we can witness what makes this Buzz different from the toy.
A space ranger assigned to one of Star Command’s exploratory missions, Buzz is awakened when the Turnip – the ship Buzz refers to because its likeness resembles the root vegetable – alerts him to an uncharted planet. The film quickly uses Lightyear’s familiar catchphrases as he records a log. “The Terrain seems a bit unstable.” “There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere.” Like the toy Buzz, the dutiful space ranger dedicates himself to completing the mission. But he has severe trust issues as he sees everyone around him, especially rookies, as unfit to be in the line of duty. Luckily, he has Alisha Hawthorne (Uza Aduba) to humble him. She knows how to push his buttons and constantly reminds him about specific protocols he neglects. And when push comes to shove, they have each other’s backs.
But when Buzz’s ego completely ruins a mission, he maroons his entire space crew on a planet full of sentient vines and deadly bugs. Though he blames himself for what happened, Alicia inspires him to do the right thing by completing the mission so they can escape off the planet. So, after years of building a defensive barrier and figuring out the science of crystallic fusion fuel, Buzz is ready to go on a four-minute test flight. However, each test comes at a cost. As Buzz reaches lightspeed, he experiences time-dilation, a concept where time moves faster for him than for Alisha. In simple terms, four years would have passed for every four minutes Buzz spends in space testing out the lightspeed fuel.
Though determined to fix things, Buzz doesn’t notice that life passes him by within minutes. He is deadset on getting off the planet without help from anyone, even his emotional robot feline companion Sox (Peter Sohn). So he continues to go on these missions without noticing what he’s missing. He sees Alishia marrying her wife, having children, and even grandchildren. And Buzz cannot stop to settle down because of his self-appointed mission to rescue everyone and escape the planet.
But one final attempt comes at a high cost as he cannot say his good-byes to Alisha upon returning home. While he’s still dedicated to the mission, he is upset to learn that Commander Burnside is content with living on the planet hidden inside a laser dome that protects them from the bugs and sentient vines. So, Buzz and Sox commandeer a spaceship with a new fuel crystal they’ve successfully fused and find themselves another four years into the future. There they meet a sunny and very confident Izzy Hathrone (Keke Palmer), a young member of the jr. zap patrol who hasn’t achieved the rank of rookie yet but is eager to live up to her grandmother Alisha’s reputation.
With a trigger-happy on-probation gereatic space cadet Darby (Dale Soules) and clumsy space ranger who’s in way over his head Mo (Taika Waititi), Buzz, Izzy, and Sox embark on Star Command’s most dangerous mission, defeat Zurg and find a way home. But that could prove to be problematic, as Zurg is hiding a few secrets of his own. Secrets that could forever change the way Buzz sees himself and the relationship he shares with the people he cares for.
So “Lightyear” ends up as Pixar’s vision of the hero’s journey through the lens of a sci-fi epic, where the title character goes on an extraordinary adventure, is tested both physically and emotionally, comes out triumphant, and an ultimately changed man from when we first met him.
Though the narrative structure isn’t entirely original, it does help to have a cast that can convince us. Evans does a solid job with differentiating his Buzz from the Tim Allen’s toy one we’re so accustomed to seeing. In this film, which director Angus MacLane considers a live-action in the Toy Story universe, Buzz is a headstrong and mature action sci-fi hero and less of comedy relief. And he pairs nicely with Alishia and Izzy, who both are inspirations not only as Black characters who go to space but Black characters who go to space and humble the title character while also saving the day. Again, it means so much more for representation when you can see yourself authentically with the characters on screen, through the braids in the characters’ hair or the tones in their voice.
And Sox the cat proves to be more than just another animal companion. In fact, he’s an indelible asset to Buzz’s heroic journey, often providing the answers to the questions that Buzz has been looking for and serves as a bit of comic relief with the hundreds of surprise gadgets he has stored in that tiny body of his. In addition, Sohn’s voice carries off as a friend concerned for his owner’s well-being but also someone who remains fiercely loyal no matter his decision.
With some outstanding animation and a few solid action set pieces that take their inspiration from the likes of “Aliens,” “The Right Stuff,” and “Interstellar,” “Lightyear” is a visual spectacle that can only be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Launch sequences for test flights feel as real as the ones we see on our screens. And the aesthetics of these ships, suits, and even mission control and the living quarters have a touch of realism as it’s influenced by the likes of NASA and other space-based programs. It all feels very tangible. So much so that you can reach out and touch it yourself.
Even the camera work pulls you into the world, making it feel as though you are right alongside Buzz for every step he takes, buttons he pushes, and laser trigger he pulls. A lot of the shots maintain a visual clarity that gives the audience an understanding of where the characters are and where the audience’s attention should be. As such, the visual storytelling is enhanced while still feeling every bit as cinematic as any IMAX film should be.
Of course, there are a few downsides to a film, especially one that shares a legacy that is as rich as Toy Story. Retreading the hero’s journey formula makes “Lightyear” somewhat predictable and doesn’t give the supporting characters much to do. While that tells us the film’s main focus should be on its titular character, one would hope that by distancing itself from the Toy Story world, we’d get to see how the supporting players helped shape Buzz’s perspective on life and the mission.
Additionally, there may be a few questions as to if “Lightyear” is one of Andy’s favorite films, why aren’t any of the other characters like Sox or Izzy reimagined as toys in the Toy Story films. The lack of those toys’ appearances only brings up more retcon issues. But for what it’s worth, let’s just chalk it up to Andy’s mom only giving him a Buzz Lightyear toy because Sox the cat was too expensive.
Again, it’s funny to see how far the “Toy Story” franchise has come and still find ways to feel fresh and funny by reinventing the narrative wheel. “Lightyear” gives the origins story to the beloved toy that the character deserves and finds a clever way of staying within the boundaries of the universe it is based on. While it may not be wholly original, MacLane takes audiences and fans on a fun and thrilling epic space adventure that’s filled with enough pathos to give us a new perspective on our beloved space ranger.