“Lightyear” is the first movie from Pixar Animation Studios to receive a theatrical release since the March 2020 run of “Onward” was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It isn’t that Pixar hasn’t been churning out hits; films like “Soul,” “Luca,” and “Turning Red” have all been released straight to streaming on Disney Plus, and while their success on the whole varied, they’ve all been at least interesting, ambitious, and often quite personal projects. So it’s ironic that out of all those movies that were never even granted the opportunity to play in theaters, “Lightyear” feels the most like it could have gone straight to home release. I feel a little bad saying that— I’m always going to advocate in favor of watching movies in the theater— and visually, “Lightyear” boasts the grandest scope of any Pixar movie to date. Literally: it’s the first of the studio’s films to have scenes shot using IMAX cameras, in an attempt to grant “Lightyear” the scale of the sci-fi classics that inspired it.
But as dazzling as “Lightyear” can be stare at, its narrative never reaches for the stars. Co-written and directed by Pixar alum Angus MacLane (who previously co-directed 2016’s “Finding Dory”), the confusion over “Lightyear” and its relationship to the “Toy Story” films and the Buzz Lightyear toy started long before the film even hit theaters, a poor marketing campaign that eventually led to star Chris Evans having to take to Twitter to explain it. Within the movie itself, it’s remarkably straightforward: a blurb at the beginning of the film explains that this was Andy’s favorite movie in 1995, the movie that made him so badly want the Buzz Lightyear toy we see him receive in the 1995 classic. In the film, Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Evans) is a space ranger for Star Command, exploring the galaxy alongside his commanding officer and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). Buzz damages their ship during an escape from hostile lifeforms, and it takes a year for the crew to make the repairs. Buzz volunteers to be the test pilot for the hyperspace fuel required to leave the planet, but every attempt—which lasts only a few minutes for Buzz— shaves off four years for the crew back on the surface. Eventually, Buzz jumps so far into the future that he has a new commanding officer (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who orders him to stop the missions; the colony is going to remain on the planet.
Unfortunately, the film’s sole real emotional gut punch comes in this first act of the movie. We see a montage of a determined Buzz repeatedly leaving for and returning from his test runs, every time another four years having passed by, his friends and colleagues growing older and living out their lives while he remains the same. In flashes, he sees Alisha get engaged, get married, have a child, retire, until finally, when he returns and bursts into her office one day, she’s gone. That discovery is an incredibly affecting moment, one that forces Buzz to reconcile his mission with everything he has missed and everyone he has lost.
But we don’t get to live in that moment for long, and the remainder of the film after that scene is a bit of a convoluted slog. Buzz defies orders and jumps so far into the future that he discovers the planet has now been overtaken by robots led by the ominous Zurg (James Brolin). Buzz, along with his robotic support feline Sox (Peter Sohn), meets Alisha’s granddaughter (Keke Palmer), an aspiring space ranger, and teams up with her band of misfits— which also includes the naive Mo (Taika Waititi) and elderly ex-con Darby (Dale Soules)— to stop Zurg and save the colony.
The third act of the film takes some turns that are clearly intended to recall the sorts of earth-shattering twists in 80s-era sci-fi classics that challenge the protagonist’s worldview, and while the finale does do that for Buzz, the audience is never given enough reason to care about him outside of the fact that he’s Buzz Lightyear. In the “Toy Story” movies, Buzz (as voiced by Tim Allen) is a comic figure, a toy whose emotional turmoil is centered around the fact that he isn’t a real space ranger. Remove that conflict from him by turning him into a real space ranger, and what’s left? Evans infuses the character with requisite heroic bravado, but that doesn’t make him interesting. And while Buzz learns a few lessons about teamwork on his journey, he doesn’t embark on a hero’s journey akin to Luke Skywalker. His character doesn’t have a real arc; he’s just sort of there.
And as detailed as “Lightyear” is, with its characters and environments rendered in a chunkier and more realistic style to evoke its cinematic inspirations, it often feels rather bland and one-note, with a lot of the action taking place on non-descript spaceships. It lacks the uniqueness and color that Pixar frequently brings to their movies, feeling more in line with the monotone look of today’s blockbusters than something retro, despite the silliness of the space rangers’ gadget-filled suits or the dry wit of the scene-stealing Sox. If “Lightyear” is really supposed to be a movie that was released around 1995, why not go all the way and try to evoke the look of the movies that were released around that time? “Lightyear” could have worked better—or at the very least, been a little more interesting—had it been injected with a little color, a little more humor (something that outside of Sox the film weirdly struggles to nail down), a little cheese. But it doesn’t do a lot nostalgia-wise for the viewers who were kids when the first “Toy Story” was released and who grew up along with each subsequent film, nor enough to pull in new young fans. We are meant to believe that Andy must have really experienced a sense of wonder watching “Lightyear” for the first time. I just don’t see it.
“Lightyear” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated PG.