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A scene from 'Lightyear'. Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“To infinity and beyond” takes on a different context in Pixar’s excellent Lightyear. Instead of a pithy catchphrase, the words become a heartfelt exchange between Buzz Lightyear and his friend and commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne. This adjustment encompasses the tonal shift from Buzz’s cinematic origin in the world of Toy Story.

Here, Lightyear is the favorite film of Toy Story’s young Andy Davis, who received a Buzz Lightyear toy in 1995 when the movie was released. Lightyear is a meta-spinoff of the Toy Story series but its own entity. Buzz Lightyear is not the action figure but the source character himself. He is less the stiff, oblivious punchline and more a mildly but easily exasperated military careerist. The Star Command Galactic Ranger and Alisha explore the planet Tikana Prime, which is overrun with attacking vines and insectoid creatures. In trying to evacuate, Buzz damages the vessel, leaving the crew marooned as they conduct repairs. 

What follows is a classic science-fiction story dealing with the variegations and complications of time travel. Each time Buzz attempts to go into hyperspace, a time dilation of the four-minute journey passes as four years on Tikana Prime. Buzz fixates on liberating the stranded team. Meanwhile, the crew continues to live and flourish, developing a community that does not include the alienated (and often alienating) Buzz. 

A scene from ‘Lightyear’. Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

The societal growth is shown most vividly in Alisha, who marries and raises a son with her wife and eventually passes on her love of being a ranger to her granddaughter, Izzy. While Buzz obsesses on the world left behind, Alisha thrives in the world that is present. (This beautifully integrated LGBT element caused it to become the first children’s animated film to be given an NC16 rating in Singapore, equivalent to an R rating in the US.)

The film is not without laughs, but they are often of a subtler variety. Alisha chides Buzz for his constant self-narration, reminding him that no one ever listens to his logs. Buzz receives a robotic service animal, a feline named Sox, whose running commentary and support function as an emotional connection for the lonesome Buzz. Underneath the “I’m Buzz Lightyear—I’m always sure” is a lost and slightly damaged ranger. 

After sixty-two years of failures, Alisha’s replacement, the insensitively bureaucratic Commander Burnside, shuts down Buzz’s attempts. By now, robots have invaded the planet under the control of the mysterious Emperor Zurg (the only other character from the Toy Story canon). A laser shield has been the sole protection from the machines overrunning the vulnerable community. Bruised but undaunted, Buzz goes rogue to complete the mission. He encounters ragtag members of the colony’s defense force who eventually become his team.

There is nothing strikingly new in Lightyear. In its beautiful, rough cinematic animation, it conjures the Lucas universe. Sly references permeate the canny, straightforward screenplay by Jason Headley and Angus MacLane. The stock characters are written with wit, but more importantly, humanity. The revelation of the antagonist provides a powerful “ah-hah” moment, giving Buzz a personal epiphany. 

Chris Evans provides the voice for Buzz Lightyear in the new Toy Story spinoff.
Image courtesy of Disyey/Pixar

Chris Evans embodies Buzz with the right balance of bombast and guilt, never sacrificing the pain for a laugh. Uzo Aduba’s Alisha is the perfect foil: smart, clever, and fully aware. The trio of under-trained recruits form Buzz’s eventual entourage. Keke Palmer captures Izzy’s mix of eagerness and fear. Taika Waititi’s Mo Morrison possesses the right touch of wide-eyed naïveté. Dale Soules, channeling her Orange Is the New Black persona, ideally assays the elderly paroled convict with a penchant for blowing things up. As Sox, Peter Sohn is simultaneously warm and deadpan—with several references to R2-D2. (There is an amusing bit with Sox providing sleep sounds.)

MacLane has directed Lightyear with a sure hand and a clear vision. He has led his voice actors and animation teams to create a story that echoes the importance of belief in others with striking and often thrilling visuals. Told through a man out of time (landing in a world where the sandwich is rethought), Lightyear finds its head and heart in ideas of life and home. More Star Wars than Toy Story, the film plays on an adult level but offers much for young audiences to enjoy. It is most on the nose (i.e., children’s movie) in the lessons of teamwork. But the ideas are smoothly introduced in action (no catchy theme songs like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”). Like with Encanto, the layers only enhance the watching experience.

With Lightyear, Pixar has found a fresh, enjoyable, and original concept. The creators adeptly transformed a character from one universe to another. Handling the shift with style, Lightyear celebrates wonder, adventure, and, ultimately, integrity. Rated PG, the film is now playing in local theaters.