'Lightyear': Pixar's Latest is a Fun Sci-Fi Adventure, But Doesn't Quite Reach Infinity and Beyond
Pixar's latest film, Lightyear, opens with a title card that says: "In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie." This defines the relationship between this film and theToy Story franchise succinctly, as it acts as a quasi-prequel as opposed to something more direct. In other words, it's about Buzz Lightyear, the fictional Space Ranger in a movie that exists in the Toy Story universe and not the toy voiced by Tim Allen that we all know and love. This conceit is pretty much just here to justify the film's existence, which has little to do with the Toy Story movies beyond that. This film is more of a straightforward sci-fi movie, and is arguably one of Pixar's most serious efforts to date. Sure, there are moments where the same charm and humor Pixar is known for shines through, but this is a bit of a change of pace for them on the whole. Pixar has put a lot of faith in the film, as it is the first film of theirs to debut in theaters since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's clear they have big aspirations for this film and hope that the big swings that they are taking with the film will pay off. There's no doubt that Lightyear is aiming for the stars, but despite its best efforts, it doesn't quite reach orbit.
The film itself has a bit of a generic plot, with Buzz Lightyear leading a rag-tag group of new recruits on an adventure through space. Along the way they encounter many obstacles, the biggest of these being the evil Emperor Zurg. For the most part, it hits a lot of the same beats that one would expect it to hit, but it is at least is entertaining to watch. Director Angus MacLane has insisted that this film is "a love letter to classic sci-fi" and it shows in some of the visual choices the film makes. There is one sequence that feels clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the way certain scenes are lit seems to have a bit of a classic feel to it. The overall narrative also feels reminiscent of classic sci-fi films, but with a bit of a Pixar spin on it. What surprised me is that the film connects very little to the Toy Story films, save for a few callbacks here and there. It is tied to them in more of a tangential way, but mostly ends up being a more standalone adventure. This is arguably for the best, as it keeps the film from relying too much on nostalgia, and lets it try to be its own thing. It does play things a little safe, which hampers its impact a little, but it still has enough fun elements that keep it afloat.
One of the main elements that elevates the film is its characters and voice cast. This film's version of Buzz Lightyear takes on an action hero persona, and reckons with all that comes with it. He's brave and cocky, but not nearly as heightened as the Toy Story version of the character. Chris Evans is pretty well-cast, as he's able to channel some of his Captain America schtick and is able to pull off the high levels of confidence the character has. It's not an overly deep character, but Evans does do a decent job with it, and is able to lean into his heroic elements. Keke Palmer is fantastic as Izzy, a young recruit who dreams of being a Space Ranger, but is held back by her fear of space itself. She serves as a great foil to Buzz, as she is less rigid and more eager to jump into action. Izzy is a delightful character, and is the heart and soul of the film. She is the granddaughter of Buzz's old partner, and wants to keep her legacy alive. She gets a lot of the big emotional moments of the film, and Palmer nails it. Palmer has proven herself to be a great voice actor over the years, and her work here further solidifies this.
One of the funniest characters of the film is Darby, voiced by Dale Soules. Darby is an elderly ex-convict who joins the team of recruits as part of her parole. I found it funny that Soules is playing a parolee given that she is most famous for playing an inmate on Orange is the New Black. However, it's clear that she has a knack for playing tough, firey women and she does just that in this film. Darby may not be given as much to do as some of the other characters in the film, but Soules does a great job with the character, and makes her memorable. Rounding out the recruits is Mo, a clumsy and bumbling man voiced by Taika Waititi. Waititi is basically just leaning into his usual schtick, but he does have some funny moments in the film. Waititi seems to be one of those people that you either love or hate, and while I skew a little more positive on him, I'll admit he can be a bit irritating at times. His character in this film does get on my nerves a couple of times, but overall, I found his work here to be more palatable compared to something like his work in Free Guy where he is almost unbearable. If nothing else, the recurring bit his character has with a pen is quite funny and pays off nicely.
However, the film's breakout character, and my personal favorite thing about this film is the character Sox, voiced by Pixar animator Peter Sohn. Sox is a robotic cat and a companion to Buzz, and steals every scene he's in. Sohn's voice performance strikes a balance between being robotic and also adding a bit of warmth and personality to the character. It also helps that Sox has such a great design that lets him feel a bit older, and helps distinguish him from the more technologically advanced world the film takes place in. Sox gets some of the films biggest laugh lines, and his bond with Buzz is quite endearing. I definitely see this character being one of the biggest takeaways that people have from the film, and is easily one of the best aspects of it.
With this being a Pixar film, it almost goes without saying that the animation is incredible. While I found the more fantastical animation styles seen in their more recent films like Luca and Turning Red more intriguing and engaging, I can't help but appreciate the more realistic style used here. There are some moments that look absolutely gorgeous, and the use of lighting is particularly impressive. Director Angus MacLane, said in an interview that that some shots were allegedly influenced by French New Wave, which doesn't fully come through in the final cut, but nonetheless, there is a distinct beauty to specific moments in the film.
What gets me about this film is that Pixar put a lot on this film by making it their first theatrical release since the start of the pandemic. Onward got a brief theatrical release before movie theaters shut down, and was then put on Disney+. Soul and Luca ended up going directly to Disney+ as well, and Turning Red was originally set to come out in theaters, but pivoted to Disney+ only at the last minute. After watching Lightyear, it makes sense that they would want this to be exclusively in theaters due to its grand scope. However, the film itself feels like it would be one that would make more sense going straight to streaming, not that it is bad, but because it feels like the easily recognizable property that families with Disney+ would see and watch extensively. Of course, you could argue that Disney and Pixar hoped that this could also translate to box office success, but the point is that the film doesn't seem to have as much substance or personality that the rest of their recent output has. I would have loved to see Soul, Luca, and Turning Red on the big screen, as they each have specific visual elements that were impressive enough to watch at home, but would have been more awe-inducing in theaters. Furthermore, these films have much more to them on an emotional level, and have such a distinct visual flair within the familiar Pixar style of animation. It's not that Lightyear is completely devoid of these things, but it is much more restrained by comparison. And there are some moments of the film that did work very well on the big screen, but I just felt that the films that got punted to Disney+ do a much better job of balancing style and substance. Despite this, I can see the film catching on with some viewers. I can see adults and children alike having fun with the adventure element of the film, and the wonderful cast of characters should connect with them as well.
It is quite appropriate that Lightyear is framed as Andy from Toy Story's favorite movie, in that it feels like a movie that might blow your mind as a child, but when watching it as an adult, you see its flaws more clearly. It's a fun watch at the very least, but I wouldn't put it up there with any of Pixar's best work. I can appreciate that Pixar wanted to try something different and to take some creative risks, but it doesn't fully work. I would argue that they come pretty close, but they don't quite stick the landing. This ends up being a straightforward sci-fi film, but at least it has some charm to it. If nothing else, this is a fun little adventure that may be a lesser effort from Pixar, but still has quite a bit to enjoy overall.