Lightyear begins with the words “In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” This isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy, this is Buzz Lightyear the Space Ranger. Therefore, Disney and Pixar’s latest effort is familiar to many, if not too familiar. Lightyear follows the eponymous Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) as he ventures through uncharted space. Buzz is a model Space Ranger; he excels in combat, is a great pilot, and is all-around a nice guy. His one major flaw is thinking that he can do everything on his own. As a member of Star Command, Buzz is chosen alongside his colleague and close friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) to explore a new planet for potential resources, but they’re not alone.
When Buzz and Alisha are ambushed on their mission, they are forced to return to their ship and leave the planet. In their emergency escape, Buzz has no choice but to launch the ship prematurely, piloting by himself and refusing the help of a rookie Space Ranger. It’s through sheer hubris that Buzz maroons himself and the entirety of his Star Command voyage on a hostile planet. Now, they have to find a way home, and all the pressure to do so lands on Buzz’s shoulders.
After harvesting a natural resource, Buzz mans the first hyper-speed test flight as his escape plan. Not only does he fail, but by attempting the flight, he ends up four years in the future. Buzz attempts the flight again and again, and the faster he flies, the further he goes into the future. Because of time dilation, Buzz ages only minutes while everyone else stuck on the planet ages years. The stranded crew and passengers waste no time in starting a new life. People get married and families are formed, whereas Buzz becomes more alone and detached. Buzz flies far enough into the future to meet Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter and aspiring Space Ranger. Before he can attempt the mission again, the arrival of Zurg and his mysterious agenda puts everyone in peril.
Veteran Pixar composer Michael Giacchino returns for his thirteenth outing at the studio. On Lightyear, Giacchino produces a score for the hero that might sound a little familiar to fans of the Toy Story series, though in actuality, is made completely from scratch. Giacchino creates a brass-infused theme that with each build-up makes the viewer want to buckle up next to these Space Rangers for the ride ahead, proving once again what a good luck charm he’s become for Pixar.
Chris Evans brings a slightly different, more humanized Buzz Lightyear to the table. He’s heroic and funny, yet not dense. He can be serious, but most importantly, he’s genuine. It’s very reminiscent of his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Captain America and makes perfect sense as to why he was chosen for the part. James Brolin’s demanding voice gives gravitas to this new iteration of Zurg, making him much more menacing than audiences have ever seen him before. Additionally, Pixar’s own Peter Sohn voices Buzz’s robot cat companion Sox. Sohn imbues Sox with such cuteness and dry humor that one can’t help but love him. He’s sure to be a hit with kids this holiday season.
Rounding out the cast are the supporting trio: Izzy, Mo, and Darby. Keke Palmer injects fun, youthful energy into Izzy, although is barely given a chance to shine. The stakes could easily be raised by delving more into her psyche. The same could be said for Mo and Darby. Dale Soules (Orange Is the New Black) voices Darby, a crew member on parole for stealing a spaceship. Darby loves her weapons and can turn nearly anything into a bomb. Soules is fantastic and provides a tough-as-nails flair for Darby in the time she’s given. Taika Waititi presents his well-known charm as Mo, but not enough of his funky humor. Mo is a klutz, and unfortunately is the cause for many of the things that go wrong. The character definitely feels like he’s missing something given how Waititi’s recognizable voice style is toned down.
By the time Lightyear manages to wrap up the arcs for this supporting trio, such as having Izzy face her fear of being in outer space, they’re so underdeveloped that they almost feel like an afterthought. The presence of Zurg only worsens the feeling. While Zurg makes sporadic appearances early on, his full reveal and true motivations come so late into the film that it’s hard for his role to feel any weight. This Zurg may be much more fearsome than his toy counterpart, though it comes at the cost of losing the memorability and long-lasting presence that version always had. Despite having a few standout moments, finally getting a solo film about Buzz Lightyear with a lackluster Zurg is still somewhat disappointing, to say the least.
For a movie whose central character is known for declaring “To Infinity and Beyond,” Lightyear stays safely on the ground. And even if the final product isn’t entirely weak per se, it still leaves one wanting more, especially coming after the uniqueness of Turning Red. Lightyear boasts a lot of the emotion that Pixar is famously known for, however, it’s notably light on the brand’s cunning wit. Whatever humor there is to be found is seemingly relegated to Sox, which seems a bit cliched for the small animal companion. Outside of Buzz himself, the rest of the voice cast feels very underutilized. It would be nice to learn more about these characters and this world, perhaps in a project more suited for Disney+, but the surface is barely even scratched as of yet.