One of the few box office misfires to come from the Disney goldmine known as Pixar was “Lightyear”. The House of Mouse poured $200 million into the acclaimed animated studio’s latest feature, not counting marketing. Yet to date the film has only managed a meager $222 million take. Hardly the results Pixar expected or are accustomed to.
“Lightyear” is a spin-off from the popular “Toy Story” film series but not in the conventional sense. It centers around Buzz Lightyear, but it doesn’t take place in the same universe as the main “Toy Story” films. Instead it’s framed as the movie that young Andy watched in the early 1990s that made him love Buzz. It’s what drove him to want the Buzz Lightyear toy figure (voiced by Tim Allen) in the four “Toy Story” movies. It’s a strange yet inspired idea from first-time director, Angus MacLane.
On the positive side, “Lightyear” is a visual achievement that features stellar animation – some of my favorite to date from Pixar. The sharply detailed textures, the incredible lighting, the cinematic framing – it all creates this stunning space spectacle that is a joy for science-fiction lovers like me. And speaking of that, it’s evident that much of “Lightyear” is inspired by countless sci-fi movies that MacLane clearly has an affection for.
But despite starting strong, “Lightyear” begins to fizzle and before long finds itself stuck in one gear. It can’t muster any real excitement from its action scenes and has a hard time generating a much-needed emotional connection. The characters are fine and they’re each given their own dramatic scenes meant to reveal heart. But these moments feel almost mechanical to the point of leaving no real impression.
Out is Tim Allen, replaced by Chris Evans who makes for a solid but unremarkable voice of Buzz. We first meet him in uncharted space where he and his best friend and commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) stop at an unidentified planet after picking up signatures of life forms. The plant-based life turns out to be hostile forcing the space rangers to flee. But when Buzz’s insistence on doing things on his own results in their ship crashing back down on the planet, the crew and the team of scientists find themselves marooned.
A year passes and during that time Space Command constructs a community and research facility built around harnessing the strange planet’s resources to find a way back to Earth. It culminates in the creation of a new hyperdrive which Buzz is set to test. His goal – launch into orbit, reach hyperspeed within four minutes, and then return to the planet with the results. During the test he fails to reach hyperspeed. But when he returns he’s shocked to learn that the four minutes for him was actually four years, three months, and two days on the planet.
Without giving away the story or getting into details, Buzz returns from a final test to find Alisha and his friends gone and the planet under assault by a mysterious villain named Zurg and his army of robots. He and his robot cat, Sox (a scene-stealing Peter Sohn) encounter three young recruits from the colony’s defense force hiding out in a training camp. One is Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s young adult granddaughter. There’s also the skittish and insecure Moe (Taika Waititi), and an elderly ex-convict named Darby (Dale Soules). While Buzz initially plans on repelling the robot assault on his own, he soon comes to realize he’ll need to rely on the help of others if he wants to beat Zurg and find a way back home.
The message of “Lightyear” is glaringly clear from the start, but it’s a good one. It’s about humility, trust, and accepting help rather than doing things on your own. Sadly it’s the storytelling that hits a wall, especially once Buzz teams up with the three recruits. Their ‘adventure’ sees the movie at its most conventional and kid-focused. But then things really bog down once MacLane and his co-writer Jason Headley throw in talk of time dilation and temporal paradoxes. It becomes hard to identify the target audience.
“Lightyear” offers plenty of pretty things to look at and one funny/adorable robot kitty. But it hardly reaches to infinity, and it certainly doesn’t go beyond. Instead much of it sits idle in orbit unsure of what kind of story it wants to tell. Worst of all, the story just doesn’t have the ingredients for something truly memorable. The animation is second to none, but it can only carry the movie so far. “Lightyear” is now streaming on Disney+.