We were all different people back in 1995. Life, love, and cinema were far simpler, often hokier back then. And the realm of sci-fi films could not escape an outright charm outweighing its technical limitations. Or a story that could live or die on its sensation of emotional weight. The brain trust at Pixar could’ve crafted a Toy Story spinoff and drive into one of two directions: straightforward and reminiscent of a typical reboot origin plot, or all-in on popcorn-friendly thrills. The merits were high for Lightyear to settle in the latter avenue, though not distanced far to fly in a reckless pattern. As fun as the journey is, with the studio re-greeting the big screen like a warm hug, that journey back is also questionably safe, a half step backward versus going beyond infinity.
Director Angus MacLane (Brave) makes it quite clear at the top this is a “movie within a movie.” What Andy would’ve seen on the big screen in the summer of ‘95 to crave the tie-in toy for his own. The modest box-office earner worthy of a cult following years later, we’re seeing that film. One occupied by a slick outer-space style, and a rigid sense of story. We see this version of Buzz (Chris Evans) as a fleshed-out human, an overconfident astronaut who’s a little too proud of his work in Star Command. A leader in need of no help, he tries to own up to brash mistakes after crash landing their turnip-shaped starship on an uncharted planet.
The goal is simple, to test and perfect a new hyperspace crystal with the right mixture to achieve a high rate of speed. To assist, he confides in a futuristic therapy cat, the robotic Sox (Peter Sohn). The prevalent issue is complicated: with every test, time dilation occurs, and Buzz jumps ahead four years into the future. In effect, he misses so much in his life, sharing it with his friend and coworker Alisha (Uzo Aduba). In what seems like the blink of an eye (realistically 60+ years), she becomes a commander, a wife, a mom, and a grandmom. Eventually, future progress eclipses Buzz’s usefulness, the threat of rogue aliens has overwhelmed the community built in his lapses, with a protective dome serving as their barrier. Time may be lost, but hopefully, not new friendships as Buzz joins forces with Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi), and Darby (Dale Soules) to knock out the enemy in a covert manner.
If only the lack of a denser story could’ve been better supported by its otherwise hefty character dynamics. I have no doubt MacLane, aided by co-writers Matthew Aldrich (Coco) and Jason Headley (Onward), had their sights set extremely high to sell an idea that was neither warranted nor necessitated. And it’s effective, up to an obvious fault. With the passage of time rushing even quicker than the act one montage in Up, the viewer would be hard-pressed to be enthralled by a deep emotional core. Amid Buzz’s stubborn, single-minded mission, trying to encapsulate Pixar’s studio standard to emote suddenly requires nimble jumping over hoops. Every leap and bound strays MacLane’s vision further off course, trading moral depth for mere screen thrills. The myriad, distracting obstacles did leave me desiring a classic tie-in game, though. Like I’d want to play Buzz in first-person, and that energy is quick to hook onto.
There may be enough in play to recognize the importance of team building, and relishing in the time one has, instead of following rigid directives. Not that Lightyear himself poses an unrealistic mindset; his training denied him certain flexibilities beyond being self-reliant. Shutting down interns, and reluctant to corralling a wild group of command scapegoats. Until, of course, a common enemy brings Buzz and his new associates down to terra firma, forcing them to work together, and mellow out their defenses. And yes, the enemy ship is shaped like some form of a crude claw. The detours by which we eventually arrive at that manner of the heart are messy. The cast works figuratively overtime to compensate, and that might do the trick. So too does a concise style palette helmed by production designer Tim Evatt; modern, realistic, and yet not too far off base for an homage to nineties sci-fi. Apollo 13, mixed with Stargate, and the mild outlandishness of late-era Star Trek: TNG.
Even so, Evans’s iteration of Buzz does need a little time to settle in. Eventually, he slides his way into Tim Allen’s shoes with a youthful gruffness that had otherwise been lacking. Granted, it’d be difficult not to hear the similarity in tone and diction any time a familiar line is recited verbatim. It’s the one instance where a callback to prior media is not subtle and respectable. Elsewhere, both Palmer and Waititi excel with dual notes of comic and calm, maintaining order when Buzz’s mind turns sluggish. As one would expect, however, it’s Sohn who steals the show, unexpectedly delivering another quality sidekick turn. Not unlike Squishy in Monsters University or Emile in Ratatouille, he brings a silly sort of eloquence to a robot cat. It could only work so enthusiastically in one of these films, and here it’s with excellence and laughable observance.
Affirmed in its heroics by yet another winning Michael Giacchino (The Batman) orchestration, I could sense another true display of Pixarian greatness. Even with the promise of astonishing visuals that could, and do, stand out on a giant screen, Lightyear can’t back up its visual laurels with its missteps in story and tonality. The experience is far from derailed, but we don’t witness its max potential either. Call it somewhere in the middle, where the caution brakes are a bit worn out. I still enjoyed it enough to recommend witnessing it with full immersion in mind. Even if I wasn’t overly wowed, this may still be another welcome entry for big-screen must-sees, in a season starving for them. And memorable comic relief. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Lightyear opens in theaters June 17, with a warning to stay through the credits, all of them; rated PG for action/peril; 100 minutes.