Movie Review: Pixar's "Lightyear"
Fun for the whole family, our film critic, Alexa, reviews the latest instalment in the Toy Story universe, just in time for the holidays!
“Lightyear” is not the origin story of the Buzz Lightyear toy from Pixar’s “Toy Story” series. It’s the origin story of the reason the Buzz Lightyear toy wound up in Andy’s bedroom. You see, Andy’s Mom bought a Buzz Lightyear toy back in 1995 because he was the main character in Andy’s favourite film. “This is that film,” a title card tells us before plunging us into an animated space opera starring Chris Evans as Buzz.
I won’t fault suspicious viewers who think this sounds like a bunch of cash-grabbing malarkey, but I should point out that this retrofitting is not without Pixar precedent. If you recall, “Toy Story 2” revealed that the Woody toy was originally a tie-in to a television show from the 1950s. Which begged the question as to why the hell a millennial like Andy would want him. At least this time, the toy came from a contemporary reference for the kid. After seeing “Lightyear,” I was full of even more questions, such as, “Would Andy’s Mom have allowed a toy version of Buzz’s partner in her house?” And, “Come on, Andy! Why didn’t you ask your Mom for a toy version of Buzz’s cat?!” If “Lightyear” lacks both the sublimity and the giddy inventiveness of the best “Toy Story” movies, that may be by design. This isn’t supposed to be a 21st-century masterpiece, but a kid-friendly, merch-spawning movie from 1995. (That was a pretty good year for commercial cinema, by the way.) The Buzz Lightyear toy was meant to stick around after the movie had been forgotten and to populate a richer, more varied imaginative landscape.
Meet the Space Rangers
Each character fits neatly into the familiar roles the genre specifies: Flawed heroes seeking redemption, rookies hoping to prove themselves, villains with secrets, and so on. “Lightyear” begins with a special mission for space rangers. Buzz is partnered with Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), his best friend. They share in-jokes and memories of missions past. Hawthorne is an African American woman, something you don’t often see in space movies despite all the work they did for NASA. She constantly teases Buzz’s penchant for “monologuing,” that is, recording the Shatner-like Captain’s Log into that device on his arm. Before each adventure, the duo touch fingers and yell “To infinity and beyond!” which I assume would have been the tagline for this film when Andy saw it. Her life amounts to a sweet sidebar, a touching miniature movie-within-the-movie. But it also might make you wonder what it would look like if the story were told the other way around, with Alisha at the centre. The person she marries is a woman, and a brief display of affection between them has already led some countries to ban “Lightyear,” which deals with the character's sexuality in a commendably matter-of-fact manner. At the same time, their marginality to the main plot makes it feel as if the filmmakers were content to check a diversity box, pat themselves on the back and move on.
Buzz Lightyear, the movie character, has the same penchant for being stubborn and following his own path, like his toy character did. He’s a real live animated make-believe Space Ranger, and he speaks in the manly baritone of Chris Evans, who played Captain America over in the Marvel Universe of the Disney empire. Like Capt. America, Buzz is square-jawed, stoic and shadowed by a hint of melancholy — a soulful soldier in an endless corporate campaign. Of course, every great hero needs a great sidekick. “Lightyear” gives us Sox (Peter Sohn), an adorable cat whose job is to offer emotional support to Buzz. Sox speaks in soothing tones, sort of a cross between “Big Hero 6”’s Baymax and HAL 9000, and will purr if you scratch his stomach. He is exceptionally good at calculations and occasionally makes a noise that sounds like “Be-boop, be-boop, be-boop!” Like any cat, Sox is full of surprises both hilarious and ominous. If Pixar’s plan was to create a character whose toy would fly off the shelves, they were successful. He has one scene in the movie—you’ll know it when you see it—that elicited audible gasps of panic in the theatre. I’m not a cat person, but I was rooting so hard for Sox that I wanted to—you’re mocking me, aren’t you?
Technically, director Angus MacLane and his co-writer, Jason Headley do a very good job gently mocking the type of space movie that would have existed in the 1990s. They fill “Lightyear” with details that are sure to inspire arguments on Twitter from the “Toy Story” faithful. The film’s visuals gleefully rob from other movies. See if you can spot “Return of the Jedi,” “Avatar,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even “The Last Starfighter” amongst the inspirations. And I.V.A.N. looks like something Nintendo would have created. The score by Michael Giacchino is one of his best, a delectable spoof of bombastic space movie music that elevates every scene it plays under. The action is wrapped in lessons - delivered in a manner that isn’t too preachy - about how it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.
No matter. As far as spin-offs go, “Lightyear” is a lot of fun. The voice talent is top-notch, especially Palmer and Evans. They have big shoes to fill; Palmer has to build on the emotional bond Aduba created, and Evans has to give us a Buzz Lightyear that’s close enough to Tim Allen’s characterization to make us believe the film’s toy tie-in. Sohn is perfectly feline and Bill Hader has a good time with his small role as a rookie with a difficult-to-pronounce last name. When Zurg finally appears, he’s voiced with a deranged glee by Mr Barbara Streisand himself, James Brolin. Hell, if his kid can play Thanos, I guess he can play Zurg.