Throughout its nearly 30-year history, Pixar has put out some classics, some good-but-not-great movies, and a couple of outright clunkers. But their track record overall has proven to be as reliable as any animation studio out there, so it’s best to doubt them at your own peril, even when they’re making a movie as head-scratching on the surface as Lightyear.
When the movie, which has the logline of “The story of Buzz Lightyear and his adventures to infinity and beyond,” was announced, it brought to mind a bunch of questions. Isn’t Buzz Lightyear just a toy? Why is Tim Allen, the longtime voice of Buzz, being replaced by former Captain America Chris Evans? Why try to milk more money out of the Toy Story franchise, which had miraculously already had four close-to-perfect movies?
The first is answered right away as they retcon history in a title card, explaining that the movie we’re about to watch was, in the world of Toy Story, released in 1995, meaning the Buzz in those movies was a toy related to the film. That’s a little wonky — animation like this certainly didn’t exist in 1995 — but it’s acceptable enough if you’re willing to go along with it.
The film throws us headlong into an adventure in which Space Rangers Buzz Lightyear (Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are exploring a planet that they soon realize is inhospitable thanks to a bunch of alien vines. A botched escape attempt strands them and their crew on the planet, and Buzz and Alisha must use the planet’s abundant resources to make a hyperspace fuel cell that will allow them to leave.
Buzz, being a daring test pilot, volunteers to test out their various experiments, but each attempt brings an unexpected development. Buzz eventually teams up with a ragtag group of Rangers-in-training, including Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taiki Waititi), and Darby (Dale Soules). They, along with a support robot cat named Sox (Peter Sohn) Buzz picks up along the way, help him in his mission, as well as defending their encampment from the threat of Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his robot soldiers.
Any new Pixar story is best experienced as unspoiled as possible, and there’s a lot that happens in between the lines of the above synopsis. Directed by Angus MacLane and written by MacLane and Jason Headley, the film does what Pixar does best, Trojan Horse-ing in an emotional story under the guise of a high-flying space adventure. The friendship between Buzz and Alisha is especially affecting, as they establish early and often a high level of respect and heart between the two of them.
There’s a load of excitement in the film, most notably Buzz’s repeated trips into hyperspace, which feature edge-of-your-seat maneuvers and speed that’ll push you back in your seat. But it’s the humor of the film that truly keeps the film moving, from the unbearable cuteness of Sox to the wacky hijinks of Buzz’s unlikely crew.
While Buzz uses the occasional familiar catchphrase and object, the filmmakers are remarkably restrained in harkening back to things we love from Toy Story. Even more interesting, the sole romantic relationship in the film belongs not to Buzz but to a female character, who’s married to another woman. The screentime devoted to their relationship is relatively small, but the import of including it is much larger than however long it appears.
The voice talent is fantastic across the board. While it’s hard to say that anyone besides Evans and Waititi is recognizable, they are each essential in creating their respective characters. In fact, two of the standouts, Soules and Sohn, aren’t well-known at all, instead drawing in the viewer with their distinctive voices and impeccable timing.
Against all odds, Lightyear is another unequivocal triumph for Pixar. And since Buzz is capable of going on many more space adventures, don’t be surprised if they keep going to infinity and beyond for years to come.
Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17.