When it comes to Pixar, the best animated film studio in the world, there is just one thing you can’t count out, and that is their ability to subvert your expectations. Case in point with their biggest property, the Toy Story franchise, which started it all for Pixar and has allowed them to become the juggernaut that they are. Because the original Toy Story is considered by many (including yours truly) to be a masterpiece and one of the greatest animated films of all time, any mention of sequels over the years has been met with some hesitation. It’s not because there isn’t a need to tell more stories within this creative world, it is because with sequels, they have the tendencies to not be as good as the original, with some even watering down the first installment due to its lack of quality.
But over time, with three sequels (Toy Story 2, 3, 4) that have been so critically and commercially successful, you would think that the fear of making something new in this franchise would ease. This wasn’t the case again for many going into Pixar’s latest, Lightyear, given that is was marketed as the movie that Andy, the child from the original series, fell in love with and inspired him to want his mom to get him his own Buzz Lightyear action figure, as well as everything else we see in the first film. Seems like a far reach of a concept to get us back into the world of Star Command and with the world’s most famous Space Ranger, but don’t worry, director Angus MacLane animated space adventure is an absolute winner with thematic and emotional resonance, just like the Toy Story films before it.
Millions of miles away from Earth is where we find Captain Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), a space ranger, who alongside his commanding officer and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), is leading the security for a scientific expedition across the universe. Their goal is to check for planets that show the purpose of discovery, and once that happens, the sleep pods containing the sciences and other leading members of Star Command can do their work, collect what they need, and then they return to Earth. Towards the end of their final excursion before returning home, Buzz and Alisha are attacked by a planet’s slimy, extraterrestrial creatures who surround them with their tentacles. As they are trying to make it back to the ship and escape, the ship starts to slowly sink off the landing surface, leading to Buzz racing to the cockpit to try and lift the giant vessel off the ground so they can exit this dangerous situation. In doing this, Buzz crashes the ship into a cliff and the damages to the ship’s light speed source, leaving them and everyone inside with no choice but to stay on this planet and fix the solution Buzz created before they can successfully go home.
Flash forward in time, the collective humans of the vessel have banded together to create a flight test for Buzz to try to see if he can his light speed for a voyage home. They have made a home on this planet, using their talents to make the best of the world and resources they can to survive and live far away from Earth. Buzz, eager to fix the mistake he made, jumps into his ship, and with the confidence from Alisha, steps off on a quick flight. But it doesn’t work, and in doing so, when Buzz returns to the planet and his testing location, he discovers every time he takes this trip, he jumps forward in time a couple of years and his friends get older, much older. Blinded by fixing the mistake that he created, he ignores the progress around him, both the professional and the personal, as Alisha has married the woman of her dreams (which is the most progressive LGBTQ+ relationship Disney and Pixar have offered yet), had a child, and built a family, all the while Buzz is repeatedly testing. Alisha, knowing her friend’s narrow focus could mean she isn’t there to help him when he makes a successful run and will need some sort of companion to return home to, assigns a robotic cat named Sox (Peter Sohn), who not only becomes Buzz’s most trusted alley but steals our heroes, and the audience, heart. As he continues to press on to return everyone home, even against the orders of those in charge, an evil force starts to make itself known, causing Buzz, Sox, and a collection of unlikely ranger recruits (voiced by Dale Soules and Oscar winner Taika Waititi), to join forces to save the world and finish the mission.
The backbone of Lightyear is the simple, heartwarming screenplay and direction by MacLane, who is making his first solo outing here after being a co-director on Finding Dory and being a senior member of the Pixar creative team for the last five years. With his take on the Buzz Lightyear character, he finds a relatable hero, someone whose own mistakes have haunted them to a false sense of isolationism and saviorism that has forced him to believe that what he did caused so much damage to the lives of everyone on the ship, that the only way to fix it is to obsess over reversing the course of events that he caused. But the opposite has occurred, as people like Alisha and others were able to restart, find a life, a family, and a purpose on this new planet that they didn’t have before. In the most human thing one can do, he reacted to a troubling situation instead of mulling over all possible scenarios as to why things might be better if they stay right where they are in their new home.
It’s here that Buzz is introduced to the group of recruits, led by the fantastic KeKe Palmer, that help him fight off the robot bad guys within the second and third acts of the film, we see Buzz Lightyear evolve beyond being just a one-man act into a team player that figures out being a part of something is more important than being alone. His progression into being a leader, as well as trusting everyone around him, is in the vein of the character we have known since the original franchise. And while Evans’s version of Buzz is akin to Tim Allen’s interpretation, this version is given the space to mold something fresh with the hopes of being an inspiration for all who have been stuck and need help in finding a different, more fulling way of seeing how beautiful our life can be.
Lightyear is a moving movie to see in our modern, cynical times when we can see people grow beyond what they are into the people we need them to be. This storytelling isn’t reinventing the spaceship but that’s okay when it is told so refreshingly and done at such a confident, entertaining level by MacLane and his co-writer Jason Headley. Mix in one of the best new characters in recent Pixar memory in Sox the cat, who steals every scene they are in, and Pixar has another winner on their hands.
If Luca, Turning Red, and Lightyear is the vision of Pixar going forward, with stripped down storytelling that is deeply invested in character development rather than massive concepts that ultimately don’t lead anywhere, then we are looking at a whole new renaissance by this prestigious animated institution.
Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation will release Lightyear on June 17 only in theaters.
Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar