While spending years attempting to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg who are attempting to steal his fuel source.
“Lightyear” won’t be mentioned in the first tier of Pixar classics, but that’s only because the studio has consistently set the bar so high. I don’t mean this as faint praise. This is a well-executed, engaging and, at times, subversive film that will entertain youngsters and certainly provide more than a few entertaining moments and smiles of melancholy recognition from the adults in the audience. And though there are times when director Angus MacLane succumbs to the temptation of employing a manic approach, he should be commended for keeping things humming along, “Lightyear’s” 100-minute running time a welcome respite in this era of bloated features.
An important distinction is made at the outset as we are told, “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” Obviously, this will go over the head of any youngsters in the audience who may actually own a Buzz Lightyear toy, yet this postmodern reference to the merchandising that drives the “Toy Story” franchise and others of its ilk purposely hangs over the film. It’s quite clever and explains why the titular hero is voiced by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen. The latter is a toy – the former, the real Lightyear…sort of…
As for the adventure that started it all, Lightyear is as arrogant as we’ve been led to believe, but he’s not much of a mechanic. The opening act sees him, and his crew stranded on T’Kani Prime, a planet they’ve stopped to investigate. Their return home is dependent on Lightyear fixing the hyper-speed drive, something he attempts to do again and again. Problem is, each time he takes his ship up for a four-minute test run, four years pass on the planet’s surface. This happens so often, he’s forced to watch his close friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba) live her entire life, while he’s basically stuck in time. Echoing the opening sequence from “Up,” this approach is equally effective.
The story losses a bit of steam as it progresses, standard action fare taking centerstage. Buzz is forced to combat a race of alien robots, led by Zurg (James Brolin), who has a rather amusing secret, with three Star Command rookies. Izzy (Keke Palmer), who just happens to be Alisha’s granddaughter, Darby (Dale Soules), whose bark is worth than her bite, and Mo (Taika Waititi), a clumsy, well-meaning cadet. And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention SOX (Peter Sohn), a robotic cat that steals every scene it’s in. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect the Disney machine intended to duplicate this character as a toy, in the hopes of selling millions of this mechanical feline…
Yes, there are plenty of lessons dispensed here. Fiercely independent, the members of Lightyear’s crew learn that “teamwork makes the dream work,” each coming to the realization that trusting others has its advantages. The light-hearted, yet earnest tone that’s a Pixar trademark helps these lessons go down easy, while numerous Easter eggs and subtle visual gags continue the company’s approach of not dumbing down the material for children, but rather speaking to adult themes as well.
“Lightyear’s” mixture of humor and sentiment prevent it from simply being a manic exercise like the recent “The Bad Guys,” which is an approach that’s held Pixar in good stead. Much like the Marvel Films, Pixar runs the risk of becoming passe by sticking to their proven formula. Yet the sincerity with which these movies are produced make any repetition that occurs excusable, even if selling toys featuring their characters seems to be an inescapable consequence.