Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 16th, 2022
Lightyear (Angus MacLane, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
The first Toy Story movie came out in 1995, launching the era of Pixar and its brilliant digital animation, which would only get better with each passing year. In that film, Andy, the boy who owns the toys, throws the world of his possessions into disarray when he brings home a newly beloved action figure from a recently released space adventure. That would be Buzz Lightyear, who by the end of the narrative had firmly ensconced himself among the old-timers. Now, after three more Toy Stories (the last was #4 in, 2019), the Pixar team has decided to give us the movie that inspired Andy’s love of Buzz, entitled simply Lightyear. Though it lacks some of the awesome creative punch of the best Pixar offerings, it is still a joy to watch.
It’s not really a prequel, but a stand-alone adventure with a different voice actor—Chris Evans (of Captain America fame)—taking on the role that Tim Allen made famous (and there have been all kinds of speculation as to why Allen wasn’t brought back, though the producers maintain it is because it is not, technically, the same character, but his living, breathing forebear). Evans is no stranger to franchises and brings the blustery side of his personality (with a healthy dose of eventual tenderness) to the part. His Buzz is, as the story begins, on a mission (because of course!) to a strange planet, where he and his commander (and friend), Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Really Love), accompanied by an unfortunate rookie, encounter aggressive plant life and bugs that prove more dangerous than they realize. One thing leads to another, and they and their entire crew find themselves with a damaged ship, unable to leave.
But humans are an innovative lot, and after a year have started to make the planet home, even as Buzz and Hawthorne build a new, experimental “hyperspeed crystal” to get them home. Before everyone can leave, someone has to test it, and who better than the ever-eager (if reckless) Buzz, who still blames himself for what happened a year ago. And so he blasts off, potentially to “infinity and beyond,” except the crystal fails, and when he returns to the surface 4 minutes later, everyone there has aged by 4 years, since he was traveling close to—if not at the actual—speed of light (which Einstein’s Theory of Relativity helps explain). Not to be deterred in his goal to right the wrong for which he holds himself responsible, Buzz tries again, and again, and again, and again … Eventually, he has barely changed while his friend Hawthorne grows older, marries, has a family, and dies.
It’s in that sad reality that Pixar manages its usual masterstroke of mining tears from genuine pathos (which all their movies try to do, some succeeding better than others). Buzz loved Hawthorne, and she him, and her departure resonates. She is made further interesting by the matter-of-fact manner in which the filmmakers reveal her lesbianism, show her marriage to a woman, then their family, all without any kind of commentary. This is how it should be in our universe (even if it is unrealistic that a sci-fi film ostensibly released in 1995 would have showcased such a same-sex relationship in an adventure targeted to kids).
The good news is that Hawthorne’s son had a daughter of his own, Izzy (Keke Palmer, Alice), who now becomes a central character as she approaches adulthood. After so many tries in vain, Buzz thinks he finally has the correct formula for the crystal, thanks to his AI cat, SOX (Peter Sohn, one of Pixar’s animators who has also done voice work in many of their films), who was a companion-animal gift from Alisha and also happens to be very good at physics and math. Unfortunately, just as Buzz has found a way off the planet, he faces a double threat in the appointment of a new commander, Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Da 5 Bloods), who has other priorities, and the sudden arrival of killer robots controlled by a fearsome enemy, Zurg (James Brolin, Being Rose). With no one else to turn to for help, Lightyear, almost always a bit of a lone wolf, must team up with the young Izzy and her ragtag team of would-be soldiers to save the day.
The movie is a lot of fun, filled with clever tricks and jokes, as well as high-stakes tension. If it’s never quite as magical, despite its extraterrestrial setting, as the series to which it links, it is still wildly entertaining. The time distortion is a great use of actual science, and the voice actors, including Taika Waititi (Free Guy) and Dale Soules (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), bring plenty of personality to their performances. Lightyear may be no supernova, but it shines brightly and brings delightful cinematic light to the screen. Who needs infinity? This will do.