Pixar finally returns to theaters this week with Lightyear, a classic feeling Sci-Fi adventure flick that’s fun, but not memorable.
After missing out on theaters for the last couple years (though still churning out some very impressive films), Pixar is finally back on the big screen with Lightyear. By and large, it’s a pretty solid choice for their return in regular theaters. It’s presented as a Sci-Fi epic in the style of older (90s) adventure films, so there’s big action and great graphics.
Directed By: Angus MacLane
Written By: Jason Headley, Angus MacLane
Starring: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Uzo Aduba, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Efren Ramirez, Keira Hairston
Release Date: June 17, 2022
It’s pretty much exactly the kind of big, blockbuster-esque, movie you’d imagine works better on the big screen. And yes, it absolutely looks gorgeous, with fantastic Sci-Fi/fantasy designs that dazzle the eyeballs in most every frame. While it’s plenty of solid fun, something about it just…didn’t click with me for some reason.
It’s kind of funny in that the marketing for Lightyear has been a tad confusing on how the film fits in with the Toy Story universe…Yet, the movie itself manages to clarify it right off the bat with three simple sentences, “In 1995, Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” Simple stuff, right? That’s pretty much the only Toy Story meta reference we get, so the rest is self-contained.
The story picks up with Buzz Lightyear and his commanding officer/best friend, Alisha Hawthorne, as they awaken from cryo-sleep in order to explore a nearby planet which may be habitable. It doesn’t take long to discover the planet CAN be live on, but is incredible hostile. Between giant, carnivorous bugs, and gigantic sentient plants, it’s not exactly a safe place to hang out.
In their desperation to escape, however, Buzz ends up damaging their massive colony ship (lovingly referred to as “the turnip”) stranding them on the planet. After awakening the rest of the science crew/colony people, they quickly establish a base and get to work figuring out what to do next.
The key component they need to escape, hyperspace fuel, isn’t something they can easily make. There’s a bit of trial and error with the resources at their disposal. Racked with guilt over the crash (largely caused in part due to his own hubris), Buzz is eager to help and get their mission back on track. As such, he volunteers to test out their experimental fuel to see if he can reach hyper-speed.
Science/physics is a cruel mistress, however, and he quickly finds out that his four-minute tests equate to four-ish years of time passing on the planet. As he goes on test mission after test mission, the world is literally passing him by. He returns time and again to find his best friend older, with a family, and eventually…gone. After returning from one last mission, he finds a new person in charge, and a new colony content with living out their lives on the planet. His services are no longer needed.
Buzz, being one of the best Space Rangers ever (and completely full of himself) cannot simply settle for what he perceives as his greatest failure. So he steals a ship and embarks on one final test with a revamped fuel crystal crafted with the aid of his cybernetic therapy cat, Sox.
It’s a success, but when he returns this time, he discovers the planet has been invaded by strange robotic aliens, the Zurg. Cut off completely from the colony which is under siege, Buzz finds himself teamed up with a motley crew of untrained junior recruits (including the granddaughter of his friend Hawthorne) to destroy the invading ship, deactivate the robots, and return to the colony with news of his success.
In many ways, Buzz is presented as a man out of time as his single-minded dedication to completing the mission, fixing his error, has completely separated him outside the life of everyone else on the colony. He hasn’t taken the time to truly see how life on the colony has evolved and only sees his failure.
This pretty much serves as both the driving point for the plot and the central theme. Buzz knows he’s the best of the best, so him causing the crash that leaves everyone stranded is something he can’t reconcile. Hell, he can’t even see it was his own hubris and unwillingness to ask for help when necessary that caused the problem to begin with. His mind can’t comprehend that others are fine and able to move on, while he’s very much stuck in the past.
Along the way, he must contend with the idea that life has been passing him by, and come to grips with his own faults. Ultimately, he must decide whether his desperation to “complete the mission” comes from a genuine desire to help everyone, or to satisfy his own pride.
Without delving into spoilers, that’s about as far as I’m going to go on discussing the overall story. Suffice it to say the adventure (which comes in at a quick 100 minutes) sticks to a fast pace bringing both action and humor.
While I can definitely say I generally enjoyed the film overall, there’s something that isn’t clicking for me. Since watching, I’ve been struggling to pin down exactly why I feel this way, especially as it feels like the kind of movie made especially for my nerdy tendencies.
It’s got all the right elements. The action brings some genuine white-knuckled tension that had me on the edge of my seat, and there are several laugh out loud moments that had my entire theater in stitches. The graphics are insanely impressive, as Pixar continues to push the bounds of animation, and the voice performances are on point.
Chris Evans does a great job bringing this version of Lightyear to life, bringing the right balance of cockiness and vulnerability, while Keke Palmer’s portrayal of Izzy Hawthorne manages to steal the show. I was especially impressed with how the villainous Zerg was handled, and the overall themes feel poignant and lasting.
It’s not that something is “missing” from the movie that’s holding it back for me, rather it’s all just sorta…there. All of these things are good, and the result is a movie that is also “good,” but that’s not what we tend to expect from Pixar films.
Throughout the run time I found myself waiting for something more. I can’t tell you specifically what, but just more in general. We’re used to seeing Pixar take these basic elements and elevating them to something else. Lightyear, however, lacks that extra oomph and seems content to be merely “okay.”
Perhaps the failing is on me, and I’m falling prey to my own expectations rather than just experiencing it for what it is. It’s something I try to actively avoid, but sometimes crops up anyway, especially in light of Pixar’s last film, Turning Red, unexpectedly ending up as my new favorite film from the studio.
Don’t get me wrong, Lightyear is still a very solid movie and enjoyable for audiences of all ages. I don’t think you’ll feel like you’re wasting money if you head out to the theater to see it. But unlike other Pixar movies, it doesn’t seem like one that will particularly stick with you.