Chris Evans steps in the Space Ranger’s boots for Buzz’s origin story
Lightyear, Pixar’s origin story for Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear, is a charming, funny, bittersweet action adventure, with moments that reach for and attain greatness. That’s a respectable outcome for any movie, but for one that carries the burden of four excellent movies that came before it, is that enough? At first glance, I think so. Lightyear is an awesome standalone story that echoes and converses with the larger Toy Story mythology. One of the key questions the film has to answer is not whether Buzz will achieve his goal of traversing space and time to get back home, but whether he is a character worthy of the emotional investment Andy—and audiences—have made.
The most significant question facing Lightyear, the one that lingers over the entire film, is whether or not we even need a movie like it in the first place. It’s a cynical thought that’s been kicking around in my head since I saw the first trailer. It’s not a great feeling when “to infinity and beyond” feels less like an aspirational mantra and more like an inevitability in a world where the goal is to keep franchises going for as long as they’re financially viable. Toy Story means so much to so many people that I trust the Pixar team to only return to the universe if they have a story they really feel needs to be told. Led here by writer and director Angus MacLane and co-writer Jason Headley, Lightyear feels less like an essential Toy Story entry and more like a good movie that just so happens to tie into something larger.
After getting stuck on a planet 4.2 million lightyears from Earth, Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is determined to get himself and his crew home. Like the Buzz viewers first met, he’s laser focused on his goal, but his single-minded determination comes with an extreme cost when dealing with space travel. There’s an early sequence in the film that channels signature moments from Interstellar and Pixar’s own Up that deftly sets and raises the stakes for the rest of the film. After effectively walling himself off from his crew, including his fellow space ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), he is left with a makeshift crew of aspiring space rangers and a robot cat named Sox.
What follows is an exciting sci-fi romp with Pixar’s typically strong mix of dazzling imagery and endearing characters. Lightyear is Pixar’s most visually arresting film since Wall-E, which is a key point of comparison for this Buzz adventure. For a character who always aimed for the stars, watching him travel among them is breathtaking. The action of Lightyear is split between a hostile planet and outer space.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Lightyear is that it feels like an underdog story, something not usually associated with the brash, headstrong Buzz. Evans does strong work, making the character feel unique while also channeling his inner Tim Allen, who voiced the original. It was probably my ears playing tricks on me, but there are a few lines where it actually sounds like Allen’s voice more than Evans’s. The supporting cast is strong, with Aduba, Keke Palmer, and Dale Soules delivering particularly effective work. I assume most reviews will single out Peter Sohn’s work as the robocat Sox, and I’ll add to the chorus—Sohn’s work is hilarious and Sox is a scene stealer every time he’s onscreen.
When Buzz Lightyear crash landed on Andy’s bed in Toy Story, it marked the beginning of a new adventure for Sheriff Woody, Slinky Dog, Bo Peep, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm, and Rex. The same goes for audiences who were unknowingly getting on a ride that has gone on for nearly 30 years. Through four Toy Story movies, the toys have questioned their place in the universe, their fate, and their duties as toys and friends. There’s always been an eye cast toward the future, particularly as Andy grew older and his cast of toys became more artifacts than playmates. Toy Story has delivered moving story after moving story, always giving the characters an ending that lets them, and viewers, know that everything is going to be alright as long as they have each other. If the series had stopped after any entry, the story would’ve felt complete and satisfying. With Lightyear, Pixar proves that beginnings can be just as bittersweet as endings.