Lightyear Review: A Taste of Pixar, a Little Bit Lost in Space

In the reality where the events of the Toy Story movie took place, Lightyear is the movie that spawned 1995’s hottest toy action figure — the one with the voice of Tim Allen. It’s not clear if the movie itself came out earlier that year, or as much as a decade prior, for young Andy to have seen umpteen times on VHS. The actual hottest toys in 1995 were brand new Star Wars figures, based on the 1977 original movie, so it could go either way. It’s really best not to get into temporal inaccuracies, as far as that goes. As many others have pointed out, Lightyear‘s casual same-sex couple would have been unusual in a sci-fi blockbuster almost any year prior to now. But we don’t even have to go there. A Lightyear movie made in the ’80s would have obvious matte paintings, for example. Lightyear review.

It’s hard not to notice the parallels with a movie that, in our reality, came out in 1998: Lost in Space. Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen that one, let’s just say the parallels go way beyond Buzz Lightyear getting his entire crew lost…in space, no less! Lost in Space hasn’t been fondly remembered, if at all — the Netflix reboot garnered far more fans. But the plot points that Lightyear borrows manage to make its story more interesting than a generic good vs. evil space battle.

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Lightyear wants to please everyone, and have it both ways, as both a family pleasing Pixar cartoon and a throwback science fiction adventure. At its best, it does elements of these well. At its least best, it never quite reconciles the two. Perhaps it should be viewed a different way, within its Pixar in-universe terms — as the big-budget “live action” movie version of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.

Though not as broadly arrogant as his toy counterpart, the realistic Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) definitely has some William Shatner-as-Captain Kirk level ego issues. This causes him to reject the sensible advice of others early on, and strand the crew of a large exploratory spaceship on a new and hostile planet full of sentient vines and nasty bugs. Minus this universe’s version of dilithium, he attempts to approximate the crystals so they can fix the hyperdrive and go home. But every time he takes a new synthesis of them for a test drive, he leaps ahead in time by four years.

This conceit makes a great sci-fi dilemma, and in turn allows Pixar to play one of their greatest hits — a version of the opening montage from Up, in which time, and life, rapidly passes by for everyone around Buzz while he serves as the helpless audience surrogate, checking in only briefly before making another leap forward, until eventually everyone he remembers is dead.

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But as with Up, this is just stage-setting for the real adventure. With his last leap, Buzz finds the outpost his crew built sealed under a laser shield and besieged by alien robots. Joining forces with a team of misfit amateurs who were caught outside the shield, one of whom, Izzy (Keke Palmer), is the granddaughter of his best friend, Buss, must find a way to stop the android invasion and save the day. And as longtime Toy Story fans will inevitably guess, this means confronting the robots’ leader…Zurg (James Brolin).

Director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) keeps the action going at a childlike “and then this happened…then this…then this” pace, with one set piece leading into another via extremely convenient planetary geography. The characters frequently solve problems by randomly coming across a thing that will help, which is fine as long as nobody stops to think too hard about it. On that score, the filmmakers do their part. When the action moves to outer space, the story finally pauses to give us a sense of awe and scale, as well as hammering home the theme that stubbornness is bad, and people who don’t change their minds as they age never remain the progressives they may think they were. The various cultural pundits who ought to get the message will probably not.

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But if Lightyear wants to be taken seriously as science fiction, it makes the mistake of keeping its characters cartoonish across the board. The movies that this one heavily draws upon frequently had one comic relief character, whereas Lightyear really only has one fully serious character in Izzy. Buzz himself may have toned down the camp qualities of Tim Allen and Patrick Warburton, but they’re still there. His other companions include nervous nerd Mo (Taika Waititi, more or less doing Korg again), aging weapons fetishist Darby (Dale Soules, hamming up both the old lady and gun nut aspects), and a robot talking cat named Sox (Peter Sohn), who is like R2-D2 with Lt. Commander Data’s voice. Individually, none may come off as broadly as Jar Jar Binks. But collectively, they’re more Marx brothers than Fantastic Four.

None of this may prove any obstacle to enjoyment for ’90s kids who grew up with the Star Command cartoon and always saw Buzz Lightyear as equal parts comedy and sci-fi. But for those of us who grew up with the movies Lightyear frequently references, from 2001 to Alien, it’s a little frustrating. As with Wall-E, Pixar had a real chance here to break their mold and do something interesting and different, using a franchise character as cover. Unable to risk losing the base, however, they just had to bring the constant jokes. Alternately, had Pixar wanted to do a pure comedy, like a space version of What We Do in the Shadows, it might have absolutely killed.

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Instead, this movie feels like bits and pieces of both approaches patched together. Individual moments work really well; the whole feels as tonally disjointed as time initially does to Buzz. Few fans will likely despise it, but many may wish it were even better.

Grade: 2.5/5

Lightyear is now playing in theaters.

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