Pixar explores generic sci-fi blockbuster territory in Lightyear

click to enlarge Pixar explores generic sci-fi blockbuster territory in Lightyear
We'd rather be blasting off to a theater screening Toy Story.

Pixar's Lightyear opens with a title card attempting to concisely explain its convoluted premise, which both constrains and minimizes the movie that follows. Theoretically, Lightyear is meant to represent the never-seen movie-within-the-movie from the original Toy Story, which inspires young Andy to ask his parents for a toy of the character Buzz Lightyear. So while the Toy Story movies are fun comedies about toys that come to life, Lightyear is a mostly serious sci-fi adventure about space exploration, a movie that a young boy might watch on repeat on VHS in 1995.

Except that Lightyear doesn't at all resemble a sci-fi blockbuster from 1995. Instead, it's a very 2022 kind of movie, a carefully calculated brand extension whose main reason for existing is the exploitation of familiar intellectual property. It's especially disappointing coming after a string of Pixar movies (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) that represented original, heartfelt stories from their creators. Lightyear isn't Pixar's worst effort — that honor still probably goes to one of the Cars movies — but it's the one with the least personality.

All of that personality is concentrated not in the title character, but in his quirky robot cat sidekick Sox (voiced by longtime Pixar animator Peter Sohn). Buzz himself is voiced here by Chris Evans, rather than Toy Story's Tim Allen. Allen's Buzz is a bit of a lovable buffoon, but Evans plays him as more of a stolid, square-jawed hero, which is reflected in the more boxy character design. Lightyear repurposes elements of Buzz's toy character, including his catchphrase "To infinity and beyond!" and his propensity for narrating his missions, but those inclusions feel perfunctory.

That wouldn't matter so much if Lightyear had a compelling sci-fi story, but the plot is a mess, full of inconsistencies and built around repetitive, simple setbacks and detours. The movie opens on what seems like it should be a prologue, with Buzz and his fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) exploring an uncharted planet. They discover hostile life-forms and attempt to leave, but Buzz's overconfidence as a pilot leads to their ship getting damaged, and the crew find themselves stranded on this harsh, remote world.

The movie, too, is stranded, spending its entire running time on Buzz's increasingly futile efforts to bring his team back home to Earth. There's no sense of a wider universe of space exploration, and if Lightyear is meant to approximate a fictional version of something like Star Wars or Star Trek, it fails to capture the scope and grandeur of those enduring franchises, despite Pixar's typically gorgeous animation. Instead, it comes off as the kind of forgettable second-rate movie that could inadvertently fuel a kid's misguided fixation.

As Buzz takes more and more test flights in an attempt to repair the ship's hyperdrive, time dilation causes decades to pass on the planet's surface, during which the remaining crew establish a multigenerational human colony. That's a heady sci-fi theme that the movie mostly glosses over, although there is an Up-like montage of Buzz's visits with the aging Alisha that conveys some of the emotional impact.

The real villain doesn't show up until 40 minutes into the movie, putting an underwhelming spin on Buzz's Toy Story nemesis Zurg. That's also when Buzz joins a group of misfits and learns some stock lessons about teamwork, while the larger existential ideas mostly fade away. The saving grace is Sohn as Sox, a deadpan emotional support robot who keeps getting Buzz out of tough situations. Sox is welcome comic relief in a movie that otherwise takes itself too seriously. If Andy loved this movie, then he had some pretty questionable taste. ♦

Two Stars Lightyear
Rated PG
Directed by Angus MacLane
Starring Chris Evans, Peter Sohn, Keke Palmer

No Man's Land Film Festival @ Panida Theater

Fri., March 31, 7 p.m.
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