Lightyear is perhaps one of the oddest of Pixar spin-offs given its trajectory. It’s a story that’s meant to exist as a movie itself within the Toy Story universe to market the Buzz Lightyear merchandise and the only way you’d know that is from the textual introduction. None of this is important as the film works well enough as a solid space adventure and doesn’t require any Toy Story lore to appreciate.
Yet it almost felt like you would be given the rocky first scene. We’re introduced to Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), a brash space ranger of Star Command trying to lead a vessel of hundreds of officers home. While investigating a planet on their course, he starts unloading all of the familiar Toy Story phrases. But with that nostalgic referencing out of the way, the film takes flight on its own.
Buzz accidentally maroons his crew due to his brashness toward dangerous situations and his ego that is unwilling to accept help. Of course, his only hope rests in how well he can train some amateur space rangers. There’s enough pluck within the chipper Izzy (Keke Palmer) that she could be a real leader. That being said, the misfits of Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules) may require a bit of extra training. Mo is accidental and cautious while Darby is a troublesome elder with a criminal record.
All of them are brought together when combatting the evil forces of Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). His robotic forces have pinned down Buzz’s Star Command crew with their robot forces and giant starship. This leads to some explosive chase sequences and an exciting showdown in space. Without giving too much away, the best way to defeat Zurg may not be for Buzz to find the best weapon but to have some introspection, where the biggest villain may be himself.
Lightyear has the feel of a sci-fi novel that blends trippy ideas about space and time as well as a deeper questioning of what it means to live a fulfilling life. Buzz’s quest is filled with as much pathos and contemplation on life as it is whiz-bang sci-fi shenanigans. I especially dug the comradery between Buzz and his equal space ranger Alisha (Uzo Aduba) and how much patience she showcases for someone so brash as Buzz. There’s a great level of understanding where the confident space ranger slowly learns to accept the help of others.
Of course, as with all Pixar films, there’s a decent dose of comedy to balance out the heavier thematic elements. This mostly comes in the form of Sox (Peter Sohn), the latest model of dry-witted computer characters fitting the Baymax formula. He’s a robotic cat that attempts to remain analytical while also being an emotional anchor for Buzz. But even Pixar can’t resist making a robot cat do cat things, especially since a straightforward voice for him only makes it funnier.
It’s been some time since Pixar has had a film on the big screen and it’s a good thing they finally made a return for this picture. Watching the IMAX space sequences was a real treat, especially for how tense they are staged. Scenes of Izzy nearly drifting off into space and Buzz nearly being crushed by shifting gravity are so exciting and engaging. Sure, it’s not like I haven’t seen similar shots from other sci-fi pictures but there’s something all the more enticing about having it presented in an animated film. Sequences like those really do sell the sci-fi adventure angle rather than just feeling like an animated feature playing genre dress-up with clothes too big.
While Lightyear won’t blaze as many trails as previous Pixar productions, it still manages to be a fun dose of space adventure with heart and heroism (and a robot cat). The sci-fi action is engaging, the animation solid enough to match the genre, the voice cast emotionally resonant, and the themes as mature as one would expect from a Pixar film. As far as being a Toy Story spin-off, it manages to be more than the toy commercial that it may or may not have been posed as in the Toy Story universe.