A while back, there was a stink on social media about how the latest works from Pixar have all gotten dumped directly to Disney+ while the Disney Animation Studios releases in the same time have all gotten big screen runs. At the time, I countered with the observation that Pixar’s smaller and more intimate films (namely Turning Red and Luca) were better served on home streaming while the more epic tales from DAS (Encanto and Raya and the Last Dragon) were better-suited for the big-screen treatment. As if to further prove my point, we now have the big-screen premiere of Lightyear, the far-reaching space opera origin story for one of Pixar’s most iconic characters.
Chris Evans takes over the role of Buzz Lightyear, a Star Command pilot sent with 1,200 others on an exploratory mission under Commander Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba). Long story short, they land on a planet that turns out to be so overwhelmingly hostile that their ship is heavily damaged upon landing. A year later, our crew of Star Command’s brightest have built their own self-sustaining remote colony with the goal of developing a viable replacement for their hyperdrive engine. And naturally, Buzz is the test pilot for this new engine.
But there’s a problem: Time dilation.
See, until Buzz and company actually break into hyperspace, E still equals MC squared. Meaning that the faster Buzz travels without actually breaking lightspeed, the farther into time he travels. The upshot is that while Buzz is only up in space for a four-minute test flight, everyone else is back on the colony for four years.
So we’re clear, this is a space opera set in a space-faring society… and time dilation is still a factor. That seems like pretty sloppy world-building to me, but it’s an experimental warp drive engine built from scraps, so we’ll cut the film some slack there. Whatever.
Anyway, Buzz keeps going back into space with a new hyperspace formula, aging days while everyone around him ages years. Buzz is trying to find a way back home, oblivious to all those back on the planet who are living and dying and building their own homes on the colony. Finally, Cmdr. Hawthorne grows old and passes away, leaving Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) in charge.
More importantly, Buzz was gifted a robotic cat (Sox, voiced by Peter Sohn) to serve as a comfort animal and help Buzz with the stress and grief of the time dilation. Instead, Buzz tasked Sox with calculating the perfect hyperspace formula. It took Sox over 60 years, but the cat eventually does it.
So Buzz goes off on one last test drive, only to find out that this hyperdrive formula is indeed operational… and somehow, he still went forward into the future about twenty years. The colony is now completely locked down against some new alien robot threat known only as “Zurg”. Buzz needs some way to defeat the Zurg Empire and get the new hyperdrive formula back to the colony. Trouble is, because the colony is on lockdown, his available help is limited to a handful of recruits who’ve barely even started training.
- There’s Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter to the late commander. She’s cocky and entitled because of her family name, and she’s a Space Ranger recruit with a debilitating phobia of space.
- Darby Steel (Dale Soules) is an explosives expert, but she’s also a convict who can’t touch a weapon for fear of violating her parole.
- Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) is bad luck personified. He’s unlucky, he’s forgetful, he’s a coward, he’s clumsy… there’s no getting around it, this character is completely useless.
(Side note: If those names ring a bell, you won’t be surprised to hear that writer/director Angus MacLane is a native Portlander. The guy packed his debut feature with an elaborate Easter Egg shouting out to his hometown. Message received, sir. We’re proud of you!)
(Speaking of which, we’ve got an autopilot AI voiced by Mary Macdonald-Lewis, a longtime — albeit controversial — fixture in Portland film and theatre with a long and storied career in voice work.)
Backing up a bit, the film opens with a title card explaining that this is the movie Andy saw back in 1995 that made him such a huge Buzz Lightyear fan to begin with. There are a number of reasons why this doesn’t compute. First of all, Commander Hawthorne is clearly established as gay and we get a number of glimpses into her family life with her same-sex marriage. Getting any significant kind of queer representation in a mainstream tentpole picture is hard enough in goddamn 2022. Sweet as this particular portrayal is, no way would this have flown back in the homophobic ’90s.
More importantly, there’s the matter of Emperor Zurg as portrayed in this movie and voiced by James Brolin. I won’t go into details regarding the character’s revised backstory and motivation, partly due to spoilers and partly because it makes no goddamn sense. Seriously, there are so many flimsy contrivances and unexplained time travel hijinks involved, every last detail falls apart under the slightest of scrutiny.
The bottom line is that prior to this movie, all the established franchise media showed Zurg as a one-dimensional archvillain tyrant who wanted to take over everything just because. And that was fine back in the ’80s and ’90s, because that’s what toy franchises were like at the time. (See also: Cobra Commander, Shredder, Megatron, Mumm-Ra, Rita Repulsa, Skeletor, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) But here, the filmmakers tried a more nuanced take on Zurg, giving him a more sympathetic goal and a more relatable motivation, with a solid emotional connection to our protagonist. None of these are necessarily bad things… except that everything about this portrayal is either pathetically thin or outright broken because the filmmakers are trying to fit Zurg into a role the character was never built for. Square peg, round hole.
The only upside to this new take on Zurg — and it’s a big one — is that it opens up the film’s overall themes regarding mistakes. Without giving too much away, I’ll defer to Louis C.K. when he said “If you went back and fixed all the mistakes you’ve made, you erase yourself.” (And he would know.) The film has a lot to say about the value of accepting mistakes and learning from them, a valuable lesson for a kid’s movie. This in addition to the expected themes about teamwork and acceptance, keeping an open mind about other people beyond first impressions, all good solid themes that work beautifully well with the established stalwart lone wolf hero nature of Buzz Lightyear.
There’s just one problem: The movie doesn’t earn those statements.
The entire second act and a good chunk of the third act is a perfect example of an Idiot Plot. I couldn’t even begin to count all the times when these characters snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and the plot keeps going for no other reason than the characters’ own rank incompetence. Morrison is by far the worst offender, with his uncanny penchant for going out of his way to break literally everything within arm’s reach. But there’s one point at the start of the third act in which Hawthorne Jr. all but dooms the entire mission over a blunder so catastrophic that it breaks all suspension of disbelief. No joke, there are so many times when these characters mess up so impossibly badly, any reasonable person would begin suspecting them of sabotage.
Granted, the film establishes consequences for these accidents and the characters openly acknowledge how worthless they are, despite their eagerness to prove themselves and make a difference. The trouble is, none of this amounts to any changed behavior. Morrison is a useless disgrace at the start of his arc, and he’s a useless disgrace at the end of it. His one useful contribution to the climax is a tool that somebody else uses. That’s fucking it. Get him out of here.
More to the point, the film would have us believe that the characters have proven themselves as a cohesive and elite unit by the end of the runtime. I remain unconvinced. I can maybe believe that the characters have grown on an individual basis (with the obvious exception of Morrison, who needs to stay permanently grounded for everyone’s sake), but the film didn’t sell me on the characters as an effective team. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.
With all of that said, any points I take away for Morrison, I have to give right back for Sox. The character is exceedingly useful, charming as the day is long, instantly memorable, consistently funny… as much as I freaking hated Morrison, I freaking loved Sox.
Of course, it certainly helped that Sox was impeccably voiced by Peter Sohn. For that matter, Taika Waititi is acting his ass off trying to make Morrison into anything worthwhile. Dale Soules, James Brolin, and Keke Palmer all turn in delightful performances as well. Special kudos are due to Chris Evans, who sounds like a dead ringer for the classic Tim Allen portrayal. If the objective was “sound like a slightly younger Buzz Lightyear”, Evans got it right on the money.
For another thing, I genuinely loved the animation and production design. It really is impressive how the filmmakers took the established Buzz Lightyear toys of prior media and updated them into something more tactile and functional. That’s especially true at the denouement, when we get to see the “final form” of the Space Ranger suits. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see Buzz’s iconic winged jetpack, but it turns out that was being saved for a big hero moment in the climax what was indeed really cool.
I’m having a difficult time with Lightyear because everything about it looks so much better on paper. It certainly would’ve helped if the filmmakers had positioned this as a modern reboot of the property instead of the actual ’95 movie, or perhaps they could’ve gone full-tilt and made this a retro throwback to the four-color kids’ cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s. But I don’t think that would’ve been enough.
This is a film that tries to make relativistic time dilation — a concept that most adults have a hard time completely understanding — a central plot point for a kid’s movie. It’s a film about accepting and moving past mistakes, but it’s also an Idiot Plot dependent on the characters repeatedly failing to learn from their mistakes. The performances and production value are great, but the characters and their development arcs are broken.
There are so many great ideas here, undone by fatally flawed execution. Still, there’s enough to like about this movie that I’d be on board with a sequel. I’d be delighted to let this same cast and crew build on what they have and take another shot at smoothing out the wrinkles. And I seriously doubt that Pixar bankrolled an extension for their longest-running franchise just to let this be a one-off, so let’s see where this goes.
In the meantime, I’m sorry that I can’t bring myself to recommend this at first-run big-screen prices. A second-run viewing or Disney+ would be more ideal.