Sometimes all you want out of a movie is a simple, fun adventure that unlocks your imagination. Many audiences go to the movies for that reason. Every child watches and rewatches a movie for that reason. Movies can inform us of our social, political, and economic situations in the world. Movies can change our outlooks, inspire us, and help us find hobbies and interests. Think about how many people’s love for dinosaurs came from seeing Jurassic Park when they were kids. Now think about a movie that will spark many young people’s interest in space and technology. Lightyear is destined to be that movie.
Angus MacLane‘s film may not offer the same level of emotional depth and richness as some other Pixar titles, but this is a movie that knows it never needed to be that. Before we see a single image, the film opens with text, positioning itself as the movie Andy saw in 1995 that inspired him to buy a Buzz Lightyear toy. Frankly, that’s all you need!
Interstellar For Kids
The first act setup already comes with a few surprises. Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans in an uncanny Tim Allen impression) and his fellow space ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) arrive on an uncharted planet. Terrain seems a bit unstable. No sign of intelligent life anywhere. Actually, no — it’s inhabited by giant bugs and deadly vines. In an attempt to escape, Buzz stubbornly pilots the colony ship on his own to evacuate the planet. Now, in any other movie, you would think this is a simple thrilling set piece that sets the action and tone early on. We expect them to escape successfully, and the next scene is probably the characters talking on the ship about what to do next.
Instead, Buzz fails. The colony ship crashes. The passengers are awoken from their cryosleep and are now forced to build a new home on their current planet. With that comes a great sense of guilt and self-appointed responsibility on Buzz’s part to right his wrong and give everyone a chance to live a prosperous life. It’s a surprising choice early in the screenplay that I never anticipated.
Where the film goes next with this premise is at times predictable and procedural and at other times surprising and impressive, with the abrupt arrival of an enemy ship with a robot army led by Emperor Zurg (James Brolin).
A Cast Of Quirky Characters
With the colony now in mortal danger, Buzz must work with a ragtag group of recruits consisting of Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), weapons specialist Darby (Dale Soules), and full-on comic relief Mo (Taika Waititi) to save everyone. Oh, there’s also a robot companion cat named Sox (Peter Sohn) who steals the show. Along the way, you have your conventional jokes, with each character’s quirkiness essentially replacing their personality traits. The main takeaway, given to us set piece after set piece, is this team of “rookies” is simply unqualified to help Buzz on his dangerous mission. None of them have an ounce of his space ranger training.
While the second act of Lightyear definitely suffers from repetition, it steadily keeps track of two main character threads. The first surrounds the pressure Izzy faces in wanting to be a space ranger like her grandmother, but she doesn’t carry the same kind of experience or fearlessness — a story arc for a POC character that is actually explored and done well. The second is about Buzz, who is unable to let go and trust in others to help him. Most of all, he has been unable to see and appreciate the world around him, because he has spent his whole life thinking about his mission.
Both threads pay off quite well in the third act. Characters make decisions that feel satisfying and earned, plus a late but very welcome plot twist adds an extra layer of emotional stakes and tension to the conflict.
Plenty Of Action And Gorgeous Animation
Most of all, Lightyear is a space adventure movie, and so it delivers on its two key promises — fun action and gorgeous animation. There probably hasn’t been this much action in a Pixar film since The Incredibles. It’s all well choreographed, with a lot of thought put into where the virtual camera is going to be. On top of it all, the film visually looks stunning.
Every Pixar movie has been a fun experiment for the team of animators to tackle one specific element. Monsters, Inc. explored fur. Finding Nemo explored water. With Lightyear, it is very clear that the animators are playing with the full spectrum of lighting, shading, and surface textures. Several times, you will find yourself noticing the texture differences among the tables, crates, glass helmets, boots, and doors. It makes all the difference when our characters must run through a series of hallways, holding areas, and rooms, all designed to look futuristic.
You will walk away from Lightyear feeling like you’ve lived in a hybrid world of Star Wars, The Martian, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even the Doom video games (the space outfits, particularly the boots, look especially like something Doom Guy himself would wear). Zurg himself looks as if Darth Vader and the Cyberdemon had a love child; it’s fantastic.
Lightyear: Exactly The Movie It Wanted To Be
Aside from that one third-act twist, most of Lightyear plays out pretty much how you would expect from a movie about the Buzz Lightyear action figure. For some critics, that might not be enough for it to justify its own existence. It’s an entertaining movie that’s consistently beautiful to look at, with plenty of action and lovable characters. But it does all of that in the most conventional straightforward way possible.
At the same time, Lightyear is probably the closest you can get to a “good movie that’s based on a fictional toy.” Underneath all the flashy animation and silly jokes is a thoughtful message about living in the present with the people you care about, something that audiences nowadays may be too cynical to embrace but absolutely need more of.
Meanwhile, you can sit there and imagine all the Andy’s and Bonnie’s in real life watching Lightyear on the big screen and not only wanting to buy a Buzz, Izzy, and Sox toy but also wanting to learn more about space. Maybe it will make them pick up a book about spaceships and planets. Maybe it will just make them try another sci-fi movie. Maybe it will eventually lead them to all the other films I’ve described.
Either way, this is a win. It’s about time Pixar takes a break from high-concept ideas and reinventing the thing inventor, after being invented by the thing inventor. You can criticize it for not aiming for infinity and beyond, or you can manage your expectations, respect its modesty, and applaud Lightyear for knowing and pulling off exactly what it wanted to be.
What did you think of Lightyear? Let us know in the comments below!
Lightyear premiered on June 14, 2022. It was released in US theaters on June 17, 2022.
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