Lightyear (2022) Review

LIGHTYEAR SOARS

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND


 

The Toy Story movies are one of the most beloved and cherished films that have come out of the Pixar Animation Studios theatrical release, with memorable cast of various characters, spot-on comedic timing, great dramatic / heartfelt scenes, and the reminiscent feeling of childhood and the translation into adulthood. Amongst those characters from the Toy Story, none is more famous than the character of Buzz Lightyear, a gleaming yet lasered focus Space Ranger toy that sparks a perfect relationship foil for his cowboy pal, Woody. The pairing of Buzz and Woody served as a vital backbone of the original Toy Story, which carried throughout the entire franchise; producing an unlike friendship from the two toys that proved quite effective. For Buzz, however, the minds at Disney / Pixar, wanted to explore the backstory of the militaristic Space Ranger of Star Command (the character himself, not the toy), with an animated direct-to-video feature titled Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins being released on August 8th, 2000. The movie, which brought back Tim Allen to voice Buzz, followed the exploits of Lightyear and acted as an “beginning” point to explore the Space Ranger, which featured Emperor Zurg as the main antagonist as well as bringing on new characters such as Mira Nova, Booster, and XR. The film, while not as highly celebrated as one of their theatrical animated endeavors, was still considered to be “a cut above the norm” in the realm of Disney’s “direct-to-video” releases, with a spin-off animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command being released on UPN / ABC a few months later on October 2nd, 2000. The series show, which ran for 62 episodes, continued what was established in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, with many of the characters returning, while actor Patrick Warburton now providing the voice of Buzz instead of Allen. With the exception of a few licensing merchandising, not much with done with the actual character of Buzz Lightyear as Disney / Pixar decided to leave the adventurous exploits of Space Ranger of Star Command alone for quite sometime and focusing more on the established toy version of Buzz in Toy Story 3 in 2010 and Toy Story 4 in 2019. Now, Walt Disney Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, and director Angus MacLane journey back to rediscover the origin of the iconic Star Command Space Ranger with the film titled Lightyear. Does this movie go to “infinity and beyond” or is it just a shallow attempt to cash-in on the Toy Story popularity with an awkward spin-off project?

THE STORY


Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is an elite Galactic Space Ranger from Star Command onboard the vast space ship that he nicknames “The Turnip” and is partnered with longtime Ranger comrade Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). On-board a mission to look for habitant planets for life, Buzz accepted a detour to the nearby planet of T’Kani Prime for exploration, only to accidentally marooned him, Alisha, and the rest of the large crew of The Turnip in the process. With the inhabitants of The Turnip setting up a camp and adjusting to this new planet, Buzz works feverously on finding a way off the hostile environment, which is plagued by dangerous wild life, turning to the creation of fuel crystals to help him master hyperspace flight. However, every test round he takes ages him four minutes, while the rest of the world around him ages four years, putting him on a race against time as he watches people, including Alisha age rapidly. Joined by his robotic companion, Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz is desperate to generate the perfect fuel mixture to set everything right, but trouble soon puts him in the line of fire, with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) arriving to take control of The Turnip, inspiring Buzz to team up with a crew misfits to save everyone and complete his mission.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Can I say that I do love the Toy Story franchise. Like many of my generation, I literally (and figuratively) grew up watching the Toy Story movies. I remember I saw the first movie (in theaters) when I was ten and absolutely loved it. To me, the story was great, and the characters were memorable (including the voices behind them), but I really was blown away by the 3D animation style of the movie, which was revolutionary for its time against hand drawn 2D animation. Likewise, each of the subsequent Toy Story sequels were just as on-par with each other; shaping the further journey of Woody, Buzz, and the whole gang on a fun and emotionally driven animated story. Of my favorite characters, I would definitely have to say that I am more of a Buzz fan than a Woody fan. Naturally, Woody has a lot of narrative beats in the franchise, but, much like what I said above, Buzz proved to be a great character foil for the ringleader cowboy toy, with the Space Ranger having a lot of the more comedic lines…sometimes utterly oblivious to the situation that is going on. I do remember seeing Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and recalling it do it actually pretty good…. more so than the commonplace and sometimes dismal “direct-to-video” releases that Disney had been producing. It was fun, effective, and explored Lightyear as a character and not Andy’s toy; expanding upon the lore of Space Ranger, with introducing his arch-nemesis Zurg as well as new characters to join the adventure. The same feeling I had with this particular movie was felt with Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, for I felt that the cartoon series was good (again, better than most Disney cartoon series being released around that time) and should’ve been further continued beyond its initial run. Plus, I felt that Warburton was a great fit for Buzz in the series by depicting the right amount of manly heroic bravado that might be customary to the Space Ranger of Star Command. Overall, the character of Buzz Lightyear was great and memorable one from the Toy Story universe and the expansion of his character was welcoming, but I kind of wanted to see more.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Lightyear, a 2022 animated film from Pixar and their twenty-six animated film. Given the amount of attention that the main Toy Story releases were receiving throughout the years, the spin-off products began to diminish. With the conclusion of Toy Story 4, it would seem that Disney / Pixar sort of “closed out” this memorable franchise once and for all. However, that wasn’t the case with the announcement being made sometime in late 2020 that a Toy Story spin-off feature based around the character of Buzz Lightyear for a 2022 release. Of course, this particular piece of information intrigued me as I wanted to see more of the character of Buzz further explored since the early 2000s. Perhaps the more bigger surprise was that Tim Allen, who expressed interest in playing Buzz Lightyear, wasn’t chosen to voice the character in the upcoming film, with actor Chris Evans win the principal role for the famous Space Ranger. However, while I was initially shocked by this news, it learned to grow one me as Evans seemed like a capable actor and one could pull it off without disserving Allen’s legacy as the character. Overtime, the movie’s promotional and marketing campaign began to appear and looked quite promising. Even the feature’s movie trailers looked great by teasing a grand space adventure that looked right up the alley of something that Buzz Lightyear would be experiencing. In addition, I was more interested in seeing this movie because it was going to be the first Pixar film to be released in theaters since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Onward having a short-lived theatrical run because of the pandemic, while Soul, Luca, and Turning Red all seeing releases on Disney’s streaming platform. Thus, I was really excited to see Lightyear when it came out and decided to check the film out on its opening weekend. So, what did I think of it? Well, I liked it. Despite a few fragmented narrative beats and few predictable moments, Lightyear excels through its usage of classic outer space journey nuances, solid voice acting, and great usage of comedy and dramatic moments. It may not beat out some of the studio’s best and more memorable entries in its illustrious catalogue of animation entertainment, but it is one of the better releases by soaring high with its gorgeous animation and good old fashioned sci-fi adventure.

Lightyear is directed by Angus MacLane, whose previous directorial works include such animated Pixar shorts like Burn-E, Toy Story Toons: Short Fry, and Toy Story of Terror, and the being the co-director on Finding Dory. Given his overall familiarity with the Pixar brand, MacLane seems like a suitable choice to helm a project like this and to actually make his own solo directorial debut. In that regard, MacLane succeeds; approaching the material that is both new and exciting as well familiar and having that nostalgia trip. Those looking for something that is more action-packed nuances that are reminiscent of The Incredibles will be happy with Lightyear as MacLane shapes the feature to have more aesthetics of a classic science fiction flick, with space exploration, strange world to venture forth, giant robots, laser guns, and other futuristic frivolities. Thus, the nostalgia of an old school sci-fi adventure is what immediately comes to mind while watching Lightyear, which is probably what MacLane and his team were aiming for. Of that notion, he definitely succeeds. The film’s action is fun, exciting, and thrilling to watch and definitely lends the feature’s suspense and entertainment and having an exhilarating traditional space exploration adventure that is similar to the Star Trek or some sci-fi tv show from the 70s and 80s; of which something like the character of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story was based off of.

Naturally, with this being a Pixar release, MacLane makes sure to have some great comedic and dramatic moments that help balance the feature with plenty of lighthearted levities scenes and poignant messages. Of course, the comedy is pretty funny in the movie, especially with many of the dialogue moments from the either the character of Sox or even from the character of Mo Morrison. It’s not as sharp or tactful as other Pixar comedy that has done before, but I felt the comedy in the film was spot on and never felt dull or lackluster. Even some of the storytelling beats are quite entertaining to explore, with the film’s script, which was penned by MacLane as well as Matthew Aldrich and Jason Headley, delving into some of the backstory lore of the Buzz Lightyear character. While the narrative pieces from Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (both the movie and the TV series) are still considered cannon, Lightyear explores more of the early days of Buzz (before meeting up with Mira, Booster, and XR and others), who is struggling to find a balance between his personal life and the focusing on the mission by leaning more towards the latter than the former. This makes the movie’s narrative an excellent point to spring off of, with the feature’s story encompassing those values as Buzz learns to overcomes his mistakes and help save the day with his companions. While the script utilizes some sci-fi tropes to help weave its narrative together (I immediately thought of Interstellar in a few areas), the movie is streamlined for a more leaner and straightforward plot that is easy to digest and something that a eight or nine year old will be able to follow.

Naturally, the movie does have its own healthy dose of thematic message throughout its narrative, which (of course) is fundamental for all ages to present and to understand. Messages of working together as a team, appreciate what you have, appreciate the time that is given to you, and learn trust others are always the building blocks of many important life lessons, which are always universally found in many animated children’s feature films. Thus, while not as a overtly poignant and deeply saturated in emotional weight in other Pixar releases, Lightyear still walks away with some heartfelt moments that will stay amongst its viewers long after the movie ends. Overall, while stumbling in a few small areas, I think that MacLane does quite an impressive job in helming Lightyear; making his first theatrical directorial debut endeavor in a fun and entertaining way that makes the feature exciting space adventure heroics from onset to conclusion.

Presentation-wise, Lightyear is phenomenally beautiful and one of the best looking Pixar releases to date. While every Pixar movie has its own unique style and feeling, Lightyear fits the mold and gives the feature its own distinct looking from the get-go by utilizing a more hyper-realistic visual aesthetics to the proceedings, with a more particular interest bodily proportions and having a more “chunky” look (as seeing in the character rendering of Buzz Lightyear himself). This particular style looks visual great and adds that sense of a more realism than say something like Turning Red or Luca, which (don’t me wrong look fantastic), has a more cartoon-ish physical look. Lightyear’s visual presentation is even more impressive when looking at the various and intricate details that the film has to offer, which makes the film a visual feast for the eyes, with loads of eye-popping color of brightness and shading that is all wrapped up in a science fiction backdrop setting. Thus, the feature’s “behind the scenes” players such as Tim Evatt (production designs) as well as the entire art department team, and all the visual artists, should be highly commended for making a stellar and “out of this world” animated endeavor that is masterfully done and can stand proudly in Pixar’s lineup of beautiful styles of CGI animation. Adding in this praise, the cinematography work by Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben is spot on, with some gorgeous and cinematic moments that are on full display with terrific timing to capture some of the feature’s more larger-than-life scenes brilliantly. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Michael Giacchino, delivers a solid musical composition that wholesomely compliments the feature’s various moments. The soundtrack is bolstered with the right amount of sci-fi action thrills and dramatic moments from character dialogue scenes to soaring action. Thus, while I was disappointed with Giacchino’s recent work Jurassic World: Dominion, I believe that the film composer redeem itself with his terrific composition score for Lightyear.

There are a few problems that I noticed while watching Lightyear that, while not distracting or derailing the feature entirely, can be perceived as a few critical areas; finding some people having issues with them more than others. Perhaps the one that might will initially find with the movie is that feature isn’t exactly what one would expect from a Pixar film. Sure, it has all traditional standards of a Pixar animated feature of good voice talents, top-notch animation, and an all-around great cartoon motion picture, but what Lightyear lacks is the big emotional dramatic impact that has become the signature staple for majority of Pixar’s legacy. Sure, not every release needs to be like this as seeing in the two Incredibles movies or even A Bug’s Life, but it has become the main “bread and butter” with its style of emotional weight to an animated film, which offers more sophistication than just a “run-of-the-mill” endeavor. Lightyear, while having some emotional and thematic message to present, lacks the really signature impact of sophisticated drama to build upon throughout the endeavor. Again, a large emphasis is placed on action and adventure exploration, which is fine, but Pixar releases are usually a “cut above” the rest of other animated movies. Thus, Lightyear, almost by design, falls short of the mark, especially given the fact that film itself is a spin-off project to one of the studio’s best and brightest series to date. This didn’t bother me as much as I sort of knew it was going to be the case, especially after seeing the film’s movie trailers, but it might damper some out there when comparing this particular feature to other Pixar releases of late such as Onward (brotherly love), Turning Red (hormonally puberty), Luca (childhood friendships), and Soul (reflections of life).

Perhaps my biggest problem with the movie is the actual narrative structure that Lightyear undergoes and how created several missed opportunities by doing this. What do I mean? Well, Lightyear’s story has a lot of time jump moments that are presented as part of a montage, with some revelations coming to light that could’ve been entire subplots to the feature. However, these particular moments are just presenting within a few minutes and are skipped over through the usage of a montage sequence. Thus, there could’ve been more to be said about certain characters, relationship building (both intimate and friendly), and a bit more adventure elements to further project into Lightyear’s narrative. Of course, makes the film have a fragmented storytelling beats in a few areas, especially with a few certain characters that are introduced at the beginning, but never really brought up again. It’s a bit perplexing and I kind of wished that the movie had the time to explore more. The same can be said about the planet of T’kani Prime, with the story never really fully digesting or fully understand the wildlife and vegetation that the crew of The Turnip. Basically, the film’s script dishes out a lot of world building elements for the movie to navigate and play around with, but leaves a lot on the table and plays “fast and loose” with the plot. This, of course, creates a few glaring pacing problems in a few areas, with some noticeable ones happening in the first act, and makes the movie feel a tad longer than it should be, which is strange as Lightyear is only 105 minutes (one hour and forty-five minutes) long.

As a minor complaint, I would say that the script isn’t as challenging in a few areas. Of course, the narrative doesn’t really get bogged down in sci-fi technobabble or get lost within its own story, but I felt that there were a few parts that were a bit predictable and a tad formulaic. However, those moments didn’t dismay my overall enjoyment of the film. It’s just a more straightforward plot than what I was expecting it to be.

The cast in Lightyear is all-rounded great and brings these colorful characters to life in a fun and amusing way. Leading the charge in the feature (and headlining the picture) is actor Chris Evans, who provides the voice for Buzz Lightyear. Evans, who is known for playing Steve Rogers / Captain America in various Marvel superhero films (Marvel’s The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame) as well as other movies like Knives Out, Gifted, and Snowpiercer, has certainly made a name for himself in the mainstream media over the past decade, especially that to his tender in the MCU. Thus, given his relationship with Marvel and Disney, Evans seemed like a suitable choice to provide the voice for Buzz Lightyear in this origin story motion picture. Much like what he did with Captain America in Marvel, Evans has the right amount of stalwart, courageous, and patriotic sound to his voice, which harmonizes quite well with character build of Buzz. Naturally, the writers throw some of the iconic Buzz Lightyear lines into the movie, with Evans playing them with great effectiveness. Evans also interjects the right amount of playfulness and energy to make the character likeable right from the get-go, which his character’s story arc easy to root for. As mentioned, there are some fragmented areas where the story of Lightyear could’ve explored more of Lightyear’s life, but, regardless of those moments, Evan nails the voice for Buzz Lightyear in a charming and heroic way.

While some have cried foul that original Toy Story actor Tim Allen was not given the role for Lightyear, I would disagree with that and say that Evans is absolutely the best and perfectly casted as Buzz. Of course, Allen’s performance of the character is iconic in the Toy Story franchise, but it is of the Buzz Lightyear toy action figure that Andy owned and not the actual Space Ranger character. So, the differences are there and each one brings something different to the character, with Allen depicting the character with a sense of humor and “stranger in a strange land” vibe throughout his nuances with a splash of stoic military bravado, while Evans brings a more “large-than-life” heroism and stalwart aesthetics to the character have that classic space explorer vibe from an old school science fiction adventure. Who is the better of the two? It just depends on who you are looking at…. the actual character of Buzz or the toy action figure of Lightyear. A matter of perception.

Perhaps my personal favorite character in the movie (besides Evan’s Buzz) was the character of Sox, a talking robotic cat and Lightyear’s personal companion throughout the movie. Voiced by Peter Sohn (Monsters University and Ratatouille), the character of Sox is downright hilarious. He’s involvement in the story is amusing and Sohn brings a lot of humor to the character in a way that makes him endearing from start to finish. Here’s to hoping that Sox makes a return if a potential sequel is greenlit. Another character in the film that is memorable is found in Izzy Hawthorne, Alisha’s granddaughter who helps Buzz on his journey in the film. Voiced by Keke Palmer (Scream Queens and Winx Club), the character is Izzy is the classic and familiar trope of a sidekick companion who brings growth to main character in the ways and means of overcoming their short sights and problems. Although, Palmer does overcomes those tropes in Izzy by interjecting relatable dialogue lines and making a good character. It’s nothing original, but she was great foil for Buzz to bounce off of throughout the film.

In the more supporting roles, actress Dale Soules (Orange is the New Black and Motherhood) and director / actor Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and Free Guy) provide some and comedic banter amongst the secondary characters of Darby Steel and Mo Morrison. Both of these characters compliment the sci-fi adventure narrative by acting as the “sidekick / companion” character tropes quite well and definitely bring the nostalgia slapstick comedy of space exploration variety. Plus, both Soules and Waititi are a great pairing together as a comedic duo as their banter with each other (along with Evans and Palmer) are terrific. Behind them, actor James Brolin (Westworld and Traffic) does a solid job in playing the role of Emperor Zurg, the presiding ruler /commander of the invading army on Tikana Prime. Brolin has enough gravitas in his voice to make the character menacing and a perfect fit for such an iconic bad guy from the Buzz Lightyear lore. Sure, voice actor Wayne Knight play Zurg in the animated cartoon series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command previously (as well as Pixar director Andrew Stanton in Toy Story 2), but I believe that Brolin is the best as Zurg and definitely fits how one would imagine the iconic villain to sound. The twist to his character in Lightyear can go either way for some viewers, but I did like it and welcome the new wrinkle into villain role. Lastly, actress Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black and In Treatment) is also great in playing the voice for Alisha Hawthorne, Buzz’s old and best friend in the Space Rangers program. While Aduba is perfectly fine in the role, the character does get push aside as the narrative progresses forward, which is mostly due to the story structure of Lightyear. For what it is, the character is fine, but I wish Alisha had a much larger role in the film, especially because both the character (and voice actor) share a good chemistry friendship with Evan’s Buzz.

Rounding out the rest of the cast, includes actor Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite and Eastbound & Down) as Airman Diaz, actor Bill Hader (Superbad and Barry) as rookie recruit Featheringhamstan, actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire and Da 5 Bloods) as Commander Burnside, actress Mary McDonald-Lewis (G.I. Joe and Archer) as the automated autopilot A.I. known as I.V.A.N., and even MacLane gets in on the fun of voice work with the cameo-like voice for robotic automatons ERIC / DERIC, which are delegated to minor supporting players in the film. Most of these are what I would expect in this category, but I will say that I was expecting a bit more character development / screen-time with Burnside. Again, this is where the movie sort of played “fast and loose” with its narrative. Other than that, these players were effective in their small roles.

Lastly, I will say that Lightyear does feature several Easter Egg endings during the end credits portion of the film. What are they? Well, I won’t spoil them for my readers out there. Just be sure to sit through it all of the credits, including the Disney and Pixar closing logos.

FINAL THOUGHTS


It’s time to go to infinity and beyond as Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear tries to save the day, defeat the evil Zurg robots, and find a way to save everyone in the movie Lightyear. Director Angus MacLane latest animated film takes the established and popular Toy Story character of Buzz Lightyear and builds upon his character’s backstory; producing a sci-fi adventure that’s full of plenty to see, do, and explore throughout. While the feature does have a bit “fast and loose” with its narrative (missing a few opportunities for full-length narrative plots and set-ups), the movie flies high with McLane’s directions, the old school sci-fi thrillers and action, sentiment moments, great animation, solid soundtrack, and terrific voice talents, especially Evans. Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, I did have some complaints about the narrative beats, but I can easily overlook those points by sheer value of entertainment that this movie has to offer. It was fun, heartfelt, exciting, and just a great animated film from the animated powerhouse. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “highly recommended” one, with the feature pleasing both casual moviegoers and fans of the Toy Story brand alike. The movie’s ending sets the stage for a potential sequel installment and I, for one, would love to explore more of Buzz’s adventure with his crew and possible new addition along the way. There’s a whole galaxy of adventure waiting to be unwrapped with a sequel and I certainly one materializes. In the end, while it may not reach the same palpable level as some of Pixar’s best and brightest, Lightyear is another slam dunk win for Pixar by presenting a solid sci-fi action adventure for the iconic Space Ranger character in his own solo origin tale. In more simpler terms, Lightyear doesn’t fall with style….it soars….to infinity and beyond!

4.3 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: June 17th, 2022
Reviewed On: June 21st, 2022

Lightyear  is 105 minutes long and is rated PG for scenes of action / peril

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