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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.