NOC Review: Decent ‘Lightyear’ Doesn’t Quite Reach Infinity and Beyond for Pixar

At the beginning of this movie there’s a disclaimer briefly explaining that this was the movie Andy saw, loved, and became obsessed with when he got his first Buzz Lightyear action figure. Andy really needs to see more movies.

TO INFINITY… — Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is an all-new, original feature film that presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans)—the hero who inspired the toy—introducing the legendary Space Ranger who would win generations of fans. Prepare to blast off for a thrilling adventure that will take you “To infinity… and beyond.” Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure releases on June 17, 2022. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

At this point, when we think about the glory days of Pixar, for the most part, their most ambitious days are behind us. Granted, occasionally we’ll get modern-day classics like Soul, Coco, or Inside Out. But even in years when we get genius films, we also get “just okay” ones too, like in 2020 with Soul and Onward, or 2015 with Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. They can’t all be masterpieces. And such is the case for Lightyear.

By no means a bad movie, Lightyear is fine, but, well, lightyears from being as ambitious as its the company’s previous endeavors. It’s a very safe, middle of the road movie for Pixar. Maybe upper-middle perhaps. And look, that’s okay. It’s not like every movie has to be a game changer. But it feels very firmly that this one is here to sell toys (no pun intended). And it’s a shame that they’d rather put something like this in theaters over a terrific original movie like Turning Red. And honestly, we know why; brand recognition. Audiences will shell out hundreds of dollars for their kids on tickets and cheap plastic toys if something bears the Toy Story moniker on it. And sadly, I feel, that’s also why they don’t have to try very hard to put out a masterpiece to make their money. And I suspect that’s why Lightyear is merely just okay. It’s a cash grab.

Now, in all fairness, for a cash grab movie, Lightyear is still entertaining, and still has moments that bring out some semblance of an emotional story. And I think it’s because director and co-writer Angus MacLane cares enough to try a little for one. Whether it’s for the sake of emotional manipulation or not is hard to say. But it does feature a premise and moments that still give you some feels. And I guess that makes it better than the average Illumination movie. But sort of mediocre by the studio’s own standards.

MAKING SPACE – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aduba)—his long-time commander, fellow Space Ranger and trusted friend—are marooned on a hostile planet. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

For this “movie within a movie,” we witness the origin story of Star Command Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear. During a mission for resources on an uncharted planet, Buzz ends up making a costly mistake that leaves everyone stranded on the planet. As a result, being especially hard on himself, he makes it his sole responsibility to fix things by developing a hyperspeed fuel that will allow him and everyone on board his ship to return home. The fuel is unstable, and Buzz has to keep testing it to ensure it can work for everyone’s safety, but the catch is every time he runs a test, he ends up moving so fast, he loses four years of his life, while everyone on the planet just gets older. On one of his return missions, however, he discovers his people are now under attack by an army of alien robots commanded by the evil Zurg. So Buzz has to team up with a few rag-tag Space Ranger cadets to save everyone from Zurg and his minions.

Admittedly Lightyear is relatively fun. Seeing the origins of this character and connecting his qualities to how they would ultimately define the toy voiced by Tim Allen in the original films is entertaining; things like how he got his laser or wings. There’s good emotion, and great vocal performances from Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, and Keke Palmer. The first part of the movie is arguably the best, and most emotional, with Buzz continuing to miss four years of his life as he watches everyone around him age and move on. He simply can’t. And there’s a lovely tragedy in all of that, which anchors the movie emotionally.

HERO’S BEST FRIEND — Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is an all-new, original feature film that presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans)—the hero who inspired the toy—following the legendary Space Ranger on an intergalactic adventure. But Buzz can’t do it alone—he shares space with a dutiful robot companion cat called Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). A hidden grab bag of gizmos in a cute kitty package, Sox is Buzz’s go-to friend and sidekick. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure releases on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

In addition to that emotion, however, I’ll say the greatest asset the movie has for it is the hilarious and adorable Sox, voiced by Pixar director, Peter Sohn. The movie’s comedic strength lies in everything Sox does, especially considering that comedy coming from other characters (particularly Taika Waititi’s mildly annoying Mo Morrison) tends to fall flat. And with that strength comes most of the fun in this movie. From the character’s deadpan delivery, to bizarre movements, but also his intelligence, reliability and loyalty, Sox will undoubtedly become the reason to tune into this movie, and the most memorable thing about it.

All of this to suggest that, while I found the movie amusing enough, much of it is bland; particularly the second act once Zurg and the cadets are introduced. As soon as this happens, everything feels forced and a little generic from the humor to the action. Zurg as a villain is very one note. And so is his robot army. Is it entertaining to watch Buzz and his team smash some robots? Sure. But there are very little stakes, very little depth, and not much danger to any of this. It all feels very light and inconsequential, and none too exciting. It’s hard to believe that a movie like The Incredibles was created by the same team given that the action in a film like that or its successor far outweigh a lot of what’s happening in Lightyear. That won’t stop kids from being mildly amused, but mostly I felt I just shrugged the sequences involving alien bugs or robots off with a small smirk.

EVIL EMPEROR – Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is a sci-fi action adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), the hero who inspired the toy. The story, which follows the legendary Space Ranger on an intergalactic adventure, features none other than Zurg—a seemingly invincible adversary of Buzz who would go on to inspire his own toy. Featuring the voices of Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Keke Palmer, Efren Ramirez, Peter Sohn, Dale Soules, Taika Waititi and Isiah Whitlock Jr., “Lightyear” releases June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

There’s even a bit of a twist mid-way through the movie that I feel the writers thought they were being super clever with, that ultimately ended up being “meh” for me. I suppose said twist was meant to tie into the overall theme and character arc for a specific character, but it didn’t make the impact with me that it should have. Perhaps because it felt predictable or obvious?

The film also has trouble trying to juggle too many themes at once, as well, and not all of it lands. For example, I think the the second and third acts could have benefited from better execution of the slightly unearned relationship between Buzz and Palmer’s character Izzy Hawthorne. Much of it, feels a bit predictable and very by-the-book. Young cadet admires hero, wants to live up to her grandmother’s legacy, screws up, feels bad, but rallies to believe in herself and save the hero she admires at the end. Whereas Buzz’s story is cocky guy tries to fix everything on his own, but realizes he needs to work with a team to succeed. These elements feel incredibly cliched, especially for Pixar, which negates our ability to relate to any of it because these aspects and themes are a bit hollow.

TEAMING UP – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Izzy Hawthorne (voice of Keke Palmer), the eager leader of a team of cadets called the Junior Zap Patrol, teams up with Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and his dutiful robot companion, Sox (voice of Peter Sohn), on a mission to figure out exactly what—or who—is behind a mysterious alien spaceship hovering above their planet. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Where the film succeeds thematically however is whenever it explores the well-worn “keep moving forward” trope that we’ve seen in films like Meet the Robinsons and others similar to it. Having Izzy really hammer into Buzz that he keeps missing real life because he obsesses over a mission he feels only he can fix (due to a combination of guilt and cockiness) is where the relatability and depth of the movie presents itself. If we can’t move forward from our mistakes we won’t be able to move forward with our lives in general. It also, in some ways, speaks to parallels people can connect to regarding the idea of just working too hard and not embracing more important things going on in life outside work (perhaps lessons the storytellers at Pixar learned during the “WFH” era of the pandemic).

Another plus would be the beautiful score from Pixar mainstay Michael Giacchino. Giacchino’s brilliant theme for Buzz is as memorable as his work from Incredibles or Ratatouille. I don’t necessarily think it tops either of those movies, or his excellent work from The Batman from earlier this year, but there’s a terrific, sweeping sense of adventure with every note. As if we’d expect anything less.

HERO’S BEST FRIEND — Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is an all-new, original feature film that presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans)—the hero who inspired the toy—introducing the legendary Space Ranger who would win generations of fans. But Buzz can’t do it alone—he shares space with a dutiful robot companion cat called Sox. A hidden grab bag of gizmos in a cute kitty package, Sox is Buzz’s go-to friend and sidekick. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure releases on June 17, 2022. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

For Summer family entertainment, you absolutely could do worse than Lightyear. It’s fun and entertaining enough, with some gorgeous animation and some great moments throughout. But given the promise this premise had, along with the voice cast, I can’t help but feel a smidge disappointed that this could have been way better than the final product ultimately is. What could have been a Finding Nemo level classic, winds up a Finding Dory pleasant, but forgettable time instead. And that’s not a bad thing, per se. Just definitively not that great either. If you’re looking for a recommendation from me, you’ll get a light one. But if you need me to summarize any reason at all you must see this movie, I have one word for you to remember: Sox.

Overall Score: B

Lightyear hits theaters this Friday, June 17.

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