Action-filled and warm-hearted, Lightyear is a fun summer movie. The animated adventure directed by Angus MacLane is not exactly an origin story for the Buzz Lightyear we know from the Toy Story film series – the handsome, narcissistic, plastic toy. There is a connection to Toy Story and it goes like this: in 1995 Andy saw a movie about the Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear and was so enthralled that his mother bought him a Buzz Lightyear toy. And Lightyear is the movie Andy saw. Would this movie inspire audiences to buy a toy based on one of its characters? Yes, I think it could, but more on that later.
For serious Toy Story fans I think there are two ways to view this movie. One way is to see it as a stand-alone feature. This approach makes sense, as although both are fictional, the Buzz of Toy Story is a toy, while Lightyear’s protagonist is a man, a Space Ranger who has adventures in space. It’s a different genre, an action-adventure science fiction film, while Toy Story is a comedy. This distinction between the two characters is emphasized by the voice casting. Tim Allen has voiced Buzz Lightyear in all the Toy Story films, creating a dramatic, funny, and ultimately very likeable character. Casting Chris Evans (Captain America) as Buzz in Lightyear establishes the character as different and separate from the familiar toy character, more heroic, not as funny.
Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is confident Space Ranger, always determined to complete his mission and just as determined to do it his own way. He’s partnered with Alisha Hawthorne, who is wonderfully voiced by Uzo Aduba, and it’s great to see a woman of color in the role of a Space Ranger. The two are tasked with exploring a planet pervaded by giant vines that grab at everyone and everything. It’s obviously not a planet with any promise, so the team gets into their spaceship, intending to head back home. But Buzz, refusing to listen to advice, makes a mistake in calculating the angle and the ship scrapes against a rocky mountain face. The spaceship is seriously damaged, stranding Buzz and his team on the planet. And that’s when the adventure begins.
It’s a very character-driven narrative because it is Buzz’s sense of responsibility, merged with his determination and exaggerated sense of self-importance that makes him fixate on getting off the planet. Buzz and Alisha have a close relationship, they’ve been on many missions together and even have their own catchphrase, something they say before each mission: “to infinity and beyond.” When Buzz’s first attempt to achieve hyper speed ends in failure, he becomes obsessed with finding an energy source that will work, even though these attempts come at a terrible cost. In another narrative landmark, Alisha falls in love with a woman, they marry and raise a child. Buzz keeps working on finding the right energy source. Although their lives follow very different paths, the feelings of friendship between Alisha and Buzz remain strong. There is something Buzz can learn from Alisha, but it will take him a while to understand that, and in the meantime – adventures!
As time passes, Buzz not only has killer vines to contend with on the planet, but also a very aggressive cohort of robots. To make matters worse, the new commander, Burnside, is not at all on Buzz’s side and has cancelled all missions. Buzz, albeit reluctantly, teams up with Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s grandchild, as well as Darby Steel (Dale Soules) a feisty old ex-con, and Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) a rather hesitant and inept wanna-be Space Ranger. But stealing the show time and again is Sox (Peter Sohn), a robot cat with many hidden talents, gifted to Buzz by Alisha. Sox is hilarious and quite heroic in his own way. I can certainly see Sox inspiring a toy craze.
If one considers Lightyear in relation to the Toy Story series, it lacks the heart-tugging depth that made those movies so memorable. Taken on its own, Lightyear is entertaining, suspenseful (but not too scary), full of action and fun – just right for a summer movie.
Director: Angus MacLane; Screenplay: Jason Headley, Angus MacLane; Cinematography: Jeremy Lasky, Ian Megibben; Editing: Anthony Greenberg; Music: Michael Giacchino; Cast: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Uzo Aduba, Mary Mcdonald-Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Efren Ramirez Keira Hairston.