If nothing else, Disney is brilliant at getting the most out of a property once it becomes successful. They milk sequels/reboots/spin-offs/remakes as long as people are still interested (sometimes a little longer than that). Their latest attempt to give new life to a franchise is Lightyear, a spinoff from Toy Story.
In the original Toy Story, the toys freak out when their owner, Andy, receives an action figure of Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear for his birthday. As Lightyear opens, viewers are informed that the movie we are about to see was Andy’s favorite and the reason he wanted the toy. As excuses for heavily marketed summer releases go, there have probably been weaker ones. What is important is not how Disney justifies this cash grab. It is whether or not Lightyear (94 minutes, plus mid/post credit scenes) justifies itself by being entertaining. While it is difficult to believe that people were clamoring for a Buzz Lightyear origin story, the one we’ve gotten is actually pretty good.
Buzz is a heroic space ranger, exploring the galaxy to protect the people of Earth. After a failed mission strands him and many other Earthlings on a strange planet, Buzz vows to complete his mission by getting them all home safe. The result is a dangerous adventure through time and space.
Where the Toy Story series are comedies dealing with themes of friendship, growing up and finding your place in the world, Lightyear is much more of an action movie with some solid comic relief. There is material in here about teamwork, the passage of time and what it means to be a hero, but the adventure stuff is definitely in the foreground. In that way, this feels almost like a cross between Pixar and Marvel. It has the action, silly comedy, cool visuals, world-building and mythology of the latter and the patience, intelligence and thoughtfulness of the former. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a winning combination.
The formula here is perfect for a flawed hero looking to make up for his mistake by just trying harder, an inexperienced rookie seeking to live up to her family’s name, an adorable robot cat and an invading force on a secret mission of their own. It is familiar, yet it works because of how it mixes in nostalgia as its characters delve into the unknown.
Buzz himself is nostalgia. At this point, he has been around for 27 years. However, he is not the same Buzz we have seen before. Previously, he was a goofily-serious, delusional, toy who thought he was a real space ranger voiced by Tim Allen. Here, he really is a heroic space ranger voiced by Captain America himself, Chris Evans. The same type of dialogue that would have been a joke coming from toy Buzz is sincere coming from human Buzz. It is easy to see why Andy would have been enamored with him.
Seeing Buzz as an outer space hero, battling alien spiders and killer robots, doesn’t feel weird precisely because this is essentially a different character in a different world. Though there has been controversy over the actor switch, it seems like the right move creatively (whether or not Allen was replaced due to creative reasons is certainly up for debate). It is hard to think of another spin-off that is just using the idea of an established character for a new movie. That is easier to do when there is less connecting this version of him to our past experiences.
Pixar, as always, knows how to push all the right buttons with likable, sympathetic heroes with easily relatable goals, lovable sidekicks, exciting action and villains whose motivations allow the protagonists to learn an important lesson. Lightyear is fun and enjoyable, even if it sometimes feels like the filmmakers didn’t stretch their creativity. They tell so many stories that are personal and original. This very much fits in with tons of other sci-fi adventure movies. While it is slightly disappointing to see Pixar do what every studio does, the fact that they did it well makes up for it.
3½ out of 5
Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear
Keke Palmer as Izzy Hawthorne
Peter Sohn as SOX
Taika Waititi as Mo Morrison
Dale Soules as Darby Steel
Uzo Aduba as Alisha Hawthorne
James Brolin as Zurg
Directed by Angus MacLane
Screenplay by Jason Headley and Angus MacLane