Since Lightyear was announced, there’s been one question on everyone’s minds. “Wait, how does this work? I’m confused.” In fact, it’s confusing enough that Lightyear explains what’s going on in the opening seconds of the film. “In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” Lightyear is, essentially, the origin story of Buzz Lightyear. Put simply, it’s Andy’s Star Wars.
It also happens to be the first Pixar movie to debut theatrically worldwide since 2020’s Onward, which hit theaters prior to the COVID pandemic. With its connection to the Toy Story franchise, a beloved star in Chris Evans, and the fact that it’s a Pixar movie, the expectations for Lightyear are high. And yet, the movie manages to not only meet those expectations but leave them in the dust.
It’s easy to see why Andy fell in love with the Buzz Lightyear concept and was determined to play out the spaceman’s adventures again and again in his bedroom. In the film, Buzz begins as a cocky and work-obsessed space ranger who, thanks to a critical mistake, maroons the crew of his ship on a previously undiscovered planet, unable to leave thanks to critical damage to their ship. From there, the long journey to find a way back to space where they can continue being Space Rangers begins, he teams with a group of younger potential Space Rangers in an attempt to defeat his newest nemesis Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and learns that there’s more to life than being a Space Ranger and if he’s not careful, life will pass him by.
That’s the beauty of Pixar movies, taking simple concepts like “there’s more to life than work” and spinning them into beautifully created stories with memorable characters you grow to care about almost instantly. For Lightyear, that meant renovating one of Pixar’s most iconic characters, Buzz Lightyear himself. While obviously based on the Buzz we meet in Toy Story, it’s clear the differences between “actual” Buzz and “toy” Buzz.
It’s Chris Evans, rather than Tim Allen, voicing the Space Ranger in the movie. That, alone, is an entirely new approach to the character. Lightyear also wisely pulls back on the slapstick humor of Buzz in the Toy Story movies. He’s still an incredibly silly character, but it’s not as loud and brash as his toy counterpart–which, tonally, makes sense. Of course, a toy version that’s based around catchphrases and space battles is a more over-the-top character.
Where Evans really sets his Buzz apart, though, is the heart he puts into it. Toy Story’s Buzz loved his fellow toys like family, but the beating heart of Lightyear is Evans’ portrayal of a man who feels like he let down not only his position as a Space Ranger but the only people that matter to him. It’s a story about accepting yourself, mistakes and all, and realizing maybe what you thought was a tragedy wasn’t so bad in the end.
The movie surrounds Buzz with an ensemble of characters we’ve never met before and, honestly, they’re all very entertaining. Uzo Aduba plays Buzz’s best friend and commanding officer Alicia Hawthorne. She’s the no-nonsense counterpart to Buzz’s belief that he can truly do anything simply because he’s Buzz Lightyear. She’s also the grandmother of Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), who could easily be considered the movie’s second lead.
Izzy leads a group of lovable losers who want to help Buzz on his mission to destroy Zurg’s ship. She desperately wants to be like her grandmother and refuses to give up on that hope, even if everything about being a Space Ranger terrifies her. At her side are the delightfully dumb Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and elderly convict Darby Steel (Dale Soules), who can turn any three items into a bomb.
This trio is where most of the movie’s comedy comes from and watching them play off of Buzz when he’s trying to be serious is incredibly entertaining. Most importantly, though, these four characters blend together to make an effective team, once they actually figure out their dynamic. Which is a good thing, because someone has to stop Zurg and there’s nobody else up to the task.
One character that has to be discussed is Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz’s robotic cat and close confidante. There’s no way around admitting that Sox is the breakout star of the movie and you can certainly expect to see the cute little furball in every toy aisle of every store for the next year. It’s a well-earned spot, though, as it’s a character seemingly designed to be funny to literally everybody, as it shifts back and forth between being more robot than cat and vice versa.
It should come as no surprise that Lightyear is beautifully animated. However, it’s not the ultra-colorful Pixar world you might expect. Given that this is a story about Space Rangers marooned on a distant planet, much of their settlement is designed with an industrial touch. There’s lots of steel, dirt, and darker colors that match up well with the desert region they live in on the planet. However, the animators have taken great care in making this settlement appear lived-in as time goes by and it becomes not the place they are stuck, but the home they are happy in.
And ultimately, that’s what Lightyear is about. From the beginning, Buzz is out of his element, refusing to accept that anything matters except “the mission.” Meanwhile, those around him adapt to their new status quo, unwilling to let life pass them by. As mentioned before, it’s a simple concept–like all of Pixar’s best stories–but a powerful one that we all need to be reminded of from time to time, and it’s done beautifully here.
That’s not to say Lightyear is perfect, though. There are a couple of issues that we can’t delve into too heavily due to the spoilers that would be unleashed. Suffice to say, the final seconds of the film oddly undermine the message of the film as a whole in a way that felt unnecessary. And, if you care a lot about Pixar canon, this movie does cause some strange hiccups in Toy Story lore that will be tough to explain away.
That said, Lightyear is a huge win for Pixar after not seeing its movies be in theaters for over two years. It’s funny, heartfelt, beautifully made, and a great example of how to expand on an existing franchise without diluting it.