Lightyear Review: Pixar’s beautiful sci-fi action world mostly overshadows its shortcomings
Pixar attempts to start a new chapter in the Toy Story franchise with a spin-off film focusing on the story of Buzz Lightyear; not the toy, but rather the fictional space ranger who inspired the toy. However, while the film can get viewers in the same spirits of loving Buzz like Andy, there are some glaring issues keep Lightyear from hitting the same heights as other Pixar adventures.
The film opens with some text defining that “this is the film” that made Andy love Buzz and while it’s a great way to frame the film so viewers can continue to connect with Andy’s love of these characters, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Obviously, animation, especially 3D animation, didn’t look this good back in 1995 and frankly, it would’ve been interesting to see Pixar go a different route with the animation. Since their conception, Pixar has mostly done 3D animation for their movies, but it would’ve been awesome to see Pixar do a modern take on 2D, hand-drawn animation just to fit with the time. Plus, there already was an animated Buzz Lightyear film and tv series, titled Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, that fans love, and Pixar channel could’ve channeled that animation style for Lightyear.
Truthfully though, Pixar continues to elevate their vision for animation with the ambitious visuals and striking detail they’ve brought with their latest films, so why stop with Lightyear? There’s something special about seeing Pixar be more action-focused with Lightyear showcasing some incredibly thrilling space flights and fights that are continually eye-dazzling. There are some shots in Lightyear that are among Pixar’s most visually stunning to date with the incredible colors and detail they put into building this world and crafting these incredibly beautiful scenes. It would’ve been nice to see Pixar make this group of Space Rangers a little more diverse in having more non-human members, like in the Star Command animated series, but they continue to excel in creating memorable character designs.
What fans will appreciate the most about Lightyear is how it handles its titular space ranger as he’s given a compelling story with strong themes. Rather than be a standard origin story, Lightyear introduces fans to a Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) desperate to fix his mistake of accidently stranding his sector of Star Command. The first act of Lightyear is honestly perfect with how it characterizes Buzz’s belief of being able to do everything himself and how that belief is his undoing. His drive to finish the mission is something that feels right at home with what fans know about Buzz and Pixar does a great job making this drive fuel the determination and tragedy in his story.
Every time he attempts to complete a mission to achieve hyper-speed you feel invested to see him succeed and his skills and adaptiveness in tough spots make it thrilling to watch him in action. However, Pixar never lets you forget the consequences of his actions and there’s actually some good reminiscence to Up with sad and tragic elements to him embarking on these missions. Each time that Buzz shoots up into space, years pass on the base meaning that the ones he loves age years on the base while he ages only minutes. Pixar does an excellent job making you feel the weight of Buzz missing major parts of his life with his friends and like Up, Pixar establishes what’s really important in life through some heavy-hearted story beats. Not to mention, Evans does a great job giving Buzz a more personable feel adding in a good range of emotion and spouting some familiar phrases that fans will love and recognize with some strong charm.
After the first act though, Lightyear loses some of its steam as it introduces some over-bearing side characters and one crazy twist. Once Buzz goes through his biggest time jump yet, he finds that a group of dangerous robots led by a towering being called Zurg (James Brolin) are attacking the base and now must rely on the help of a rag tag group of soldiers. When it comes to Lightyear’s side characters, they mostly act as constant comic relief. Buzz’s robot cat companion Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) provides some of the funniest moments in the film through some of his cynical turns and great timing of jokes. As for the trio of rag tag soldiers, they can have some funny moments, but their constant clumsiness and mistake-prone antics can become frustrating.
The idea of them constantly causing mistakes makes sense because of how it ties into the lesson that Buzz needs to learn of forgiving, moving forward, and not belittling others for their mistakes, but there are a lot of times where their mistakes feel needlessly forced. These characters are just screwing things up all the time, almost to the point where it feels on purpose, and it only works in unnecessarily complicating the plot. It is gratifying to see Izzy (voiced by Keke Palmer), the granddaughter of Buzz’s friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba), live up to her grandmother’s legacy as a space ranger and play a key role in Buzz changing his mindset. However, it was tough to connect with her for a while because of how annoyingly klutzy her and the others are. Also, the voice performances outside of Evans and Sohn are just fine, but Taika Waititi’s as Mo, the clumsiest member of the group, does feel way too similar to Waititi’s usual comedic schtick and sticks out poorly.
One of the most divisive aspects of Lightyear will undoubtedly come from how the film handles Zurg as there’s an unexpected twist with the character. While the twist makes sense given the story’s focus on time-traveling and Buzz’s personal journey, it’s tough not to feel like it conflicts with lore. Zurg has simply been known as an evil robot emperor in Toy Story canon and the reveal of what Zurg is in Lightyear heavily conflicts with that. Also, it’s such a big swing that’s admirable, but tough to fully get behind because of how wild and strangely random it is.
It’s also worth talking about the heavily discussed LGBT scene that sees Alisha kissing her eventual wife as it actually embodies an issue that recent Disney/Pixar movies have had with representation. There’s absolutely no issue with Disney and Pixar trying to add greater LGBT representation to their films, but the quality of those additions is worth questioning. Here, Alisha and her wife are simply touched upon in a montage and could be quickly forgotten afterwards with how little they’re mentioned. If there was a moment where Izzy maybe talked about their impact on her upbringing, they could’ve more important and had some very sentimental moments even when they’re not on-screen. Instead, Alisha’s wife gets no lines, and the “controversial kiss” is just a blink, and you’ll miss it moment. Given all the articles written about this scene throughout all the lead-up to Lightyear and Disney/Pixar lack of transparency about the actual relevance of the moment, this feels like pure queerbaiting and rather than be the big step in LGBT representation both Disney and Pixar want to achieve, this barely moves the needle forward and feels like bare minimum effort.
Lightyear is an experience that most fans, especially of Buzz Lightyear, will enjoy for Pixar’s beautifully crafted sci-fi world and Buzz’s personal story, but there are aspects that keep it from being something beyond a solid Pixar flick. An incredibly divisive twist, frustrating side characters, and, personally, weak LGBT representation keep Lightyear from being groundbreaking or infinitely remarkable.