Who doesn’t like Buzz Lightyear? Disney and Pixar, it seems, if his latest adventure is any indication. What may have started out as a good idea to tell the backstory of the famous Space Ranger toy from the Toy Story franchise evolved into a movie that ruins his good name and heroic persona. No, I’m not blowing things out of proportion. Text at the very beginning of Lightyear states that Andy (the boy in the Toy Story films) saw this movie in 1995, and it made him want a Buzz Lightyear action figure. There’s no way that Andy would possibly sit through this mess, let alone celebrate Buzz after watching it. The fabulous animation and strong voice cast are wasted on this workable concept that got sucked into a wormhole and ruined on the other side. Lightyear mixes emotions from Up and physics from Interstellar for a disappointing animated retcon of the beloved titular character.
Writer/director Angus MacLane and writer Jason Headley had their fingers in a number of Pixar productions, including Finding Dory and Onward. You would think that this property would be in good hands with them. Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) and his best friend, Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), land on an uncharted planet and begin exploration. Creeping vines and bugs attack them and their ship, and in an attempt to leave too hastily, Buzz crashes the ship and strands everyone on the planet. The ship needs a new hyperspace fuel crystal to blast off, and Buzz tries out different mixtures of fuel with the assistance of his robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn). In a plot device stolen from Interstellar, the time dilation of each fuel test ages Buzz just a few minutes while the stranded shipmates on the planet age years. Split into two movies in a way, Buzz returns after one trip to find that evil robots have taken over the planet. They are led by a robot named Zurg, Buzz’s nemesis in the Toy Story flicks. Buzz teams up with Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules) to defeat Zurg and save the colony.
Much hubbub was made over Evans taking over the voice work for Buzz from Tim Allen. Let me dispel that drama. In the framework of Andy’s world, it passes the smell test with one actor portraying Buzz in Andy’s “favorite movie” and the other voicing the action figure. Evans puts on his best authoritative voice, and it works for me. After all, he knows how to be a hero. Aduba brings some warmth and spirit to her character, and Palmer mirrors her in a similar, younger role in the second part of the film. Waititi, Soules and Sohn offer comedy, and their lines usually lighten the mood in even the worst situations. Mo fixates on the buttons on his uniform, and Darby entertained me with her excessive sarcasm and snark. Aduba and Soules both hail back to Orange Is the New Black, but they share no scenes in Lightyear. Casts can make or break an animated film, and fortunately, this lineup saves the movie from total disaster.
The mixture of realistic backgrounds and exaggerated characters won me over. I don’t recall that the animation in a Pixar release has ever disappointed me. As technology and rendering speed improve and increase in complexity, I expect Pixar to stay at the head of the class. A lot of work went into Sox, and it pays off as a cute robot pet with skills along the lines of another famous space hero’s droids. Plenty of robots in Lightyear provided the opportunity to decide how robots should look (beady red eyes, etc.) and transfer that aesthetic to the space suits worn by Izzy and others in that part of the movie to almost blend in undetected along the robots. Zurg receives the best robot design of the bunch, and one robot keeps popping up, easily identified by a missing arm. The filmmakers excel at the craft of visual storytelling with an element like that one-armed robot who’s out there somewhere like a MacGuffin. I only wish that Lightyear had wowed as richly as it looks. Some exciting sequences of space flight and robot battles break up the monotony of everything else.
Another controversy has to do with Alisha’s relationship with another woman. In 2022, this should be no big deal. I could almost blame Disney for egging on this negative press to distract from the real problems with the story. If anything, the gay community should be angrier that Alisha’s love life gets reduced to just a few frames and seconds in the running time. It feels like a stunt with no character development whatsoever. Lightyear contains too much sadness and not enough adventure, so Andy would probably not run from the theater sounding its praises. Remember how sad you felt after that perfect little mini-movie in Up about Carl Fredricksen and his wife? I felt that way for much of the movie as Buzz continues to fail and the colonists’ prospects weaken. Even worse, the finale engages in cartoon physics during reentry of a space ship and other impossible actions after the earlier supposed “accurate” time dilation stuff.
Michael Giacchino has been busy lately with his score for Jurassic World Dominion sounding off last week. His simple theme of four notes will run in your head as you leave the theater, and his music keeps the action scenes as exciting as I wanted the entire movie to be. That’s just it. The filmmakers only needed to send Buzz on a mission that was easy to understand and that culminated in an all-out battle with Zurg… without any of the time nonsense and a major twist that sort of ruins everything and lost me at that exact moment. The filmmakers did not “finish the mission” to prop up Buzz. I sure hope that they don’t take the same approach to Woody, Andy’s first favorite toy. The underwhelming Lightyear should have avoided theaters and gone straight to Disney+ and (not much) beyond.