Review: Lightyear Reverse-Engineers the Buzz Toy and Creates an Entertaining Science-Fiction Adventure

There’s nostalgia mining, and then there’s Lightyear, the latest animated work from Pixar that technically isn’t a prequel or origin story or any of the other labels people seem eager to place on it. Instead, Lightyear asks us to remember that the Buzz Lightyear action figure from the Toy Story movies was, in fact, based on a (fictional) character from a mid-1990s science-fiction-action movie that lead human character Andy went to see and became obsessed with. What the Lightyeargineer filmmakers have created is that original, make-believe movie, featuring the live-action (but still animated) Buzz in his first Space Ranger adventure film. In essence, the writers and director Angus MacLane (the co-director of Finding Dory, as well as a couple of Toy Story shorts) have reverse-engineered the Buzz toy; they figured out how its features and certain lines that it speaks can be incorporated into Lightyear, and the results are genuinely wonderful.

Now voiced by Chris Evans, Buzz has a more serious tone, at least to start with. He’s on a space mission with hundreds of crew members, including his commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). After coming out of hyper-sleep and diverting from their set flight path to answer a distress beacon, Buzz and Alisha accidentally get their craft damaged beyond the point of escape from an alien world, and it takes a year to even build a craft that might have the right fuel to get them back on course. Buzz attempts multiple, ambitious launches and brief journeys into space to see if he can build up enough speed to escape, but each mission fails and results in him losing several years because of the speed at which he’s traveling. He doesn’t age much, but his fellow travelers do, meaning that he misses out on things such as Alisha falling in love, getting married and having a child. Eventually, he even misses her death, and when she’s replaced by Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), his missions are put on hold just as he’s convinced he’s on the brink of solving the fuel issue with the help of his personal assistant/cat robot SOX (voiced by Pixar filmmaker Peter Sohn).

Buzz steals a ship and actually succeeds with his next flight, but in the process, he loses decades, and when he returns to the planet, things have changed. He stumbles upon a small group of ambitious but inexperienced Ranger recruits—Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi), and Darby (Dale Soules)—hiding from invading robot forces, led by Zurg (who should also be familiar to Toy Story fans), which are attempting to steal Buzz’s newly created fuel source.

While there are quite a few very funny moments in Lightyear, the film isn’t really meant to be a comedy in the way Toy Story and many other Pixar films are. As mentioned, this is an impressive science-fiction action-adventure tale, with a sprinkling of laughs, mostly due to the ineptitude of the recruits, all of whom are simply too inexperienced to be of any real use to Buzz as he attempts to get on board the robot’s ship and destroy it from the inside. There are a handful of unexpected developments and relationships as the film moves forward, and I won’t spoil those; there’s even talk of parallel universes and other anomalies that Buzz’s travels have created, but they’re handled in a way that doesn’t feel like hacky multiverse plotting.

Lightyear takes its emotional content as seriously as its science fiction, and the result is one of the most mature Pixar works to date, but one that doesn’t forget to be immensely entertaining. In the end, the film’s primary goal is to be convincing as a movie that a preteen kid would go gaga over and want to buy the toys connected with it. It’s just a bonus that we also find out about Buzz’s costume accessories and where all of his catchphrases come from. Buzz is a person who puts the mission and the lives of others before his own, and that’s the character I’m most interested in learning more about. Thankfully, Lightyear gives us exactly that and a robot kitty.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.