Dir: Angus MacLane. Starring (voices): Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, James Brolin, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Uzo Aduba. PG, 110 minutes.
“This isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy,” Chris Evans tweeted in 2020. “This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.” The actor had just been announced as the star of Pixar’s Lightyear – the voice of this new, human Buzz. And he’d clearly been instructed to send out a bit of executive-approved messaging for the film. But it was odd to see that brand of vacuous corporate-speak come from Pixar. This is the same animation studio that’s delivered decades of imaginative, heart-on-sleeve explorations into life, death and every tear-inducing emotion in between. Yet here they were, the makers of Up and Inside Out, trying to sell us on the idea that a spin-off of the Toy Story franchise wasn’t really a spin-off, but a crucial building block in the story of how a toy became a toy.
I’m happy to report that you can drop a little of your pessimism around Lightyear. A little, if not all of it. The film, in reality, frames its premise a lot less cynically than it might seem. This is supposed to be the film that Andy, the kid who owned Woody and Buzz, watched at some formative age. It’s meant to be the Star Wars of his universe. Actually, no – that sets the bar way too high. It’s more akin to one of the many sci-fi romps that feverishly chased after Star Wars’s success. Something like 1984’s The Last Starfighter. But Lightyear isn’t particularly bogged down by the Toy Story connections. That familiar purple-and-green space suit is there, and the film tries to recontextualise Buzz’s catchphrase – “to infinity and beyond” – as a pre-flight ritual in the same way Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager would always ask for a stick of Beaman’s gum in 1983’s space drama The Right Stuff. The “ooooh”-ing green aliens never cameo, nor is there any hint of Spanish-mode Buzz.
Nostalgia rarely factors into Lightyear, which makes the franchise connection feel almost like a bit of window dressing slapped on to an entirely unrelated sci-fi story. Maybe that’s the only way to get butts in seats these days. Especially to watch what is, at the end of the day, a film that does the job it needs to do but without a crumb of anything more. When we meet Buzz – human Buzz, that is – he’s mid-mission with his commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), sent down from his colony ship to explore possible signs of life on an alien planet. All he finds are a bunch of murderous bugs and vines but, when Buzz tries to hightail their ship out of there, a moment’s miscalculation leaves the entire crew stranded on the planet’s surface. His desperate attempts to fix what he broke, while refusing to accept even a morsel of help, lead him on a series of missions that propel him decades into the future. The lives of friends and colleagues pass by in what, for Buzz, feels only like a handful of days.
So far, Buzz sounds like the Buzz we know: an egotist who hates teamwork. And the lessons he learns are roughly the same, albeit with a more holistic, “you only live once” attitude to accepting human fallibility. Buzz teams up with Alicia’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) and, alongside a duo of loveable incompetents voiced by Dale Soules and Thor: Love and Thunder director Taika Waititi, they battle an attempted invasion by the mysterious and threatening Zurg (James Brolin). The way director Angus MacLane, who co-wrote the film with Jason Headley, handles his villain neatly summarises the ground-level problem with Lightyear – the choices made serve its story well, but make it almost impossible to relate Zurg to the version we already know from the Toy Story movies.
The “good” here lies largely in the smaller touches. The voice work is stellar, and Evans borrows just enough vocal inflection from Tim Allen (the OG Buzz) to keep the performances connected. The emotional beats are also still unshakeably sincere, as is the Pixar way – there’s a montage of the decades passing by, which sees Alisha fall in love with a woman working on the ship. They build a life together (it’s here that a widely discussed kiss takes place, a brief but relatively significant moment of LGBT+ representation in mainstream film). And the humour works, too, with jokes about futuristic sandwiches, pop-out spacesuit pens and a robotic cat named Sox (voiced by The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn) that’s both adorable and cheerily sinister.
As might be expected, Lightyear is so painstakingly animated that, if you looked at a few frames in isolation, they’d be almost indistinguishable from the live-action blockbusters Pixar’s clearly competing against. It wants to look exactly like something Toy Story’s Andy would have loved. And so it borrows, again and again, from other films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Aliens. But this is the studio that’s meant to imagine the unimaginable, from metaphysical planes of existence to, at the very least, a rat stirring a pot of soup. When every live-action film is so packed with CGI that it looks animated, what’s the point of making an animated movie that looks live-action?
‘Lightyear’ is in cinemas from Friday 17 June