Directed by Angus MacLane.
Featuring the voice talents of Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Dale Soules, Taika Waititi, Peter Sohn, Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Keira Hairston.
Legendary Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear embarks on an intergalactic adventure alongside a group of ambitious recruits and his robot companion Sox.
It’s admirable how director Angus MacLane and screenwriting collaborator Jason Headley stamp out any confusion about Lightyear. A title card simply states that in 1995, Toy Story‘s Andy fell in love with toy Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (a character most of us fell in love with by extension) due to a movie and that this is that movie. It also sticks to that through and through, without nostalgia pandering imagining Andy’s reactions to what’s transpiring on screen or any unnecessary Toy Story filler.
Granted, it is initially jarring that Lightyear looks nothing like an animated teacher from 1995. Yes, Disney and Pixar are unbelievable technical wizards for modern animation, but there’s something to be said that insane levels of detail and modernity itself are not necessarily always the best or correct approach. Just as bring-frying the movie universe within the movie universe is also brought to us by Disney and Pixar, The script is selling a concept it’s not committed to, which feels like something even the majority of the general public will see through and get frustrated by, let alone overthinking, stuffy critics. So it comes down to the basics (storytelling and characterization) to help us overlook the pros and cons of this creative decision. It’s also safe to say that Lightyear does eventually kick into hyperspeed as a hilarious and heartwarming tale of embracing teamwork and the things in life that truly matter.
The titular Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear is now voiced by Chris Evans (the transition away from Tim Allen is much smoother than expected, with Evans putting on a terrific impersonation that carries a bit more acting range) and has become marooned on an unknown planet 4.2 million light years away from Earth, alongside his crew and teammate Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba). Within a year, they are successfully able to render the planet habitable for the rest of the 1000ish crewmembers also stranded. Meanwhile, Buzz is able to craft a crystallized energy source potentially capable of pushing the spacecraft into hyperspeed which would, in turn, be enough to get them off the planet.
The testing mission does not go as expected, and even worse, when Buzz returns, he finds out that four years have passed for everyone on the ground. Undeterred and determined to rescue his crew, Buzz reruns the mission following some slight mathematical modifications at the hands of an emotional support robotic cat (amusingly and scene-stealingly voiced by Peter Sohn), hoping for a different, positive result. Well, the numbers and modifications still aren’t quite there, and the four years are quickly stacking on top of themselves, piling up fast (although the trip is visually stunning every time, an advisory for the epileptic is warranted). There is also somewhat of a missed opportunity here to make this trial and error the emotional core of Lightyear, diving deeper into the Space Ranger’s mindset of failure and missing out on the lives of close companions.
Going back to the concept and purpose of Lightyear (an impressionable movie Andy saw some time right before Toy Story), it admittedly also doesn’t make much sense for the film to go down such a serious, heartstring-pulling route. In the Toy Story universe, it was a movie designed to sell toys, and Lightyear follows in those footsteps, functioning as fairly standard sci-fi fare meant to sell Andy on the idea of Buzz Lightyear. Considering some of the characters here are highly charming (Sox the cat), there is also a frustrating can of worms opened that these characters don’t exist as toys within Toy Story.
With that in mind, the situation lightens up considerably as Buzz partners with a ragtag group of homeless convicts, a diverse bunch ranging from the hysterical Taika Waititi voicing the dimwitted Mo Morrison to the elderly paroled markswoman Darby Steel (voiced by Dale Soules). More importantly, he is forced to team up with Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (outstanding voiceover work from Keke Palmer), a wannabe Space Ranger afraid of space. For various reasons (some understandable and others not so much), Buzz prefers to lone-wolf missions and often feels bogged down by the prospect of working together. Naturally, he also feels a great deal of pressure to protect the granddaughter of one of his best friends. There’s nothing exceptional about this from a story standpoint, but the camaraderie developed between these misfits (including the outrageous robot cat Sox) allows for a graceful flow and pacing among extended action beats.
Buzz Lightyear’s arch nemesis, the robot Zurg (James Brolin), also makes his presence known by standing in the way of our heroes’ escape. There is also a bit more going on here attempting to stretch and flesh out these villainous motivations, and while it may not entirely work on an emotional level, it certainly does feel like a 1995-reminiscent plot twist. Aside from that, it’s a reminder of what Buzz will become if he continuously shuts out teamwork and sticks to solo efforts.
Again, it’s easy to see the missed opportunities and what areas Lightyear could have leaned into further, but this is also a clever prequel idea that pleasantly pushes against cheap fan service. And when there is a call back to Toy Story, it’s a line from action figure Buzz, which is a genius way of hitting those memories that isn’t an insult to one’s intelligence. Also, even though this is an animated feature, Lightyear is assuredly a source of inspiration for young Black girls that space exploration is for everyone. That’s the beauty of Lightyear‘s diversity; anyone with any skin color is worthy of putting on that iconic suit. And the cast of characters at the center exemplifies that with laughs, friendship, and bravery, feeding off each other to infinity and beyond.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com