Now streaming–A very different Pixar star pilot returns in animated movie Lightyear

Review by C.J. Bunce

After having a lackluster theatrical release (what hasn’t?), Disney Pixar’s tie-in movie Lightyear landed on Disney+.  What should have been a big film for the studio, Lightyear is as a mixed bag.  It is a science visual spectacle starring one of the stars of Toy Story, one of Pixar’s best loved film.  It’s an action-adventure that is like a Matt Damon movie homage, part Titan A.E. space fantasy, at times cold and lonely like Interstellar, with the stranded astronaut out of The Martian, and it’s meta, with a parallel history twist out of The Adjustment Bureau.  As science fiction it tries on many tropes for size, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant to Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars.  Unfortunately it forgets that, by its own introduction, it’s supposed to be a movie for kids.

A failing of many a movie reviewer is reviewing not the movie on the screen but the movie the reviewer wishes it was.  The movie opens with a title card that states: “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday.  It was from his favorite movie.  This is that movie.”  Putting aside that the animation is cutting edge–the movie never attempts to be a 1990s era space movie–the script, written by Jason Headley and director Angus MacLane, forgets the target audience is a little kid.  Change Buzz Lightyear’s name and costume and Lightyear is a much better movie than it gets credit for, hence the comparison to a similar standalone animated spectacle, the year 2000 surprise hit Titan, A.E.  

But because audiences already know a side of Buzz Lightyear from four Toy Story movies, audiences have a certain expectation.  If Lightyear is the right Buzz, then we all really didn’t know Buzz at all.  That’s because the astronaut “space ranger” of Lightyear is not only flawed, he’s a troubled military pilot with all sorts of personal issues.

First off, Chris Evans re-creates the perfect voice for Buzz.  If you didn’t tell anyone the character wasn’t voiced by original Buzz voice actor Tim Allen, you simply wouldn’t be able to tell.  In fact the entire voice cast provides a top-notch effort, including the unmistakable Taika Waititi and Keke Palmer as young space rangers and Peter Sohn as robocat Sox.  The visual effects may be the best of any sci-fi animated movie so far.  And Michael Giacchino provides a musical score that may not have a memorable theme you can hum, but it creates emotion in the right action-heavy places.

The premise of the movie is space ranger Buzz makes a mistake straight away, relegating his starship, which looks like and is referred to as a turnip, to marooned status on a planet full of killer plants and giant insects.  The very serious Buzz, who is frequently mocked for his inability to see the bright side of life or joke about much at all, beats up himself for his failure (although he never asks whether it was a failure as much a mistake).  He begins a series of dangerous missions to achieve the right travel speeds to get his people off the planet, but with each flight it thrusts him far into the future.  His fellow spacefarers are aging at a normal pace, but his trips see him age only hours.  His crewmate, Alisha Hawthorne, voiced by Uzo Adbua, is married and becomes the boss on Buzz’s next return, she has a son on the following return, then gray hair on the next, then her son’s graduation on the next, then she’s gone, as her death transpired while he was away.

If this sounds like high drama, it’s because it very much is.  It’s the kind of drama of self-sacrifice and aging and death that is going to be too much to handle for most little kids.  One of many themes for the movie is that Buzz never stopped to live his life.  Yes, he’s heroic for his sacrifice, but nobody asked him to be, and he finds out too late, nobody wanted him to.  The result has too much in common with the gloomy Steven Spielberg movie, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, or the hopeless despair for the future of Planet of the Apes or H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

The result is a story that lacks heart.  It opts for the dramatic at the expense of fun, at the expense of humor.  The one effort made to show Buzz’s lighter side almost works.  He is given a cat robot named Sox to accompany him on his travels, who he slowly grows closer to.  But the cat isn’t a real cat, and his only meaningful relationship, after the long-gone Alisha, is with what is essentially a computer.

The last half of the movie provides the opportunity to correct the past, but this isn’t a time travel movie.  Instead the film opts for giant robot battles–serious battles, not goofy, quirky, kids’ movie stuff.  Or was it supposed to be funny that the old space ranger parolee at the end of the film looks exactly like the endearing old man from Pixar’s movie Up?

So Lightyear ultimately lands as a puzzle.  What kind of movie was this supposed to be, and who is its audience?  The incredible space movie visuals might be better suited to some kind of adaptation of Apollo 13 or a fictional The Right Stuff.  After all, Buzz really looked like the other star of Toy Story, Tom Hanks.  Isn’t Jim Lovell the kind of astronaut you figured Buzz Lightyear to be?

The visuals are there, the voice actors are there, and the music is there.  The story just needs heart and even a bit of the fun of its source material.  Lightyear is streaming now on Disney+.

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