The opening title of “Lightyear,” Pixar’s 26th film, explains the film’s premise. Andy, the young hero of “Toy Story,” was apparently given a Buzz Lightyear action figure in 1995 as a gift. That was because he was a huge fan of the Buzz Lightyear movies. “Lightyear” is the name of the film in question. The creative minds at Pixar had a lot of room to work with there. One can picture Buzz Lightyear as a cocky young pilot in training. Since Buzz is the most technologically advanced toy in “Toy Story,” it’s not hard to imagine the movie taking place in the most deliriously Pixarian of sci-fi kiddie landscapes, what with his rounded plastic spacesuit, chartreuse trim, and bubble helmet.
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But “Lightyear,” while conventional and likable in its own right, is hardly a risky film. In the beginning, Buzz is already largely the familiar Buzz Lightyear we all know and love: an absurdly overconfident test pilot with a gift for flying but also a delectable egomaniac who is too confident for his own good and prone to dangerous stunts because, well, because he’s Buzz. He and his crew are galactic explorers in the spirit of the “Star Trek” cast, and they’ve just landed on a planet overrun by aggressive vines and the occasional rusty robot. Buzz makes a calculation error that leaves them all stranded on the desolate planet as he attempts to pilot the spaceship (which he nicknames “the turnip,” because of its shape) out of a steep valley.
Buzz’s nave, self-centered belief that “I can do anything” has been proven false, presumably not for the first time. As far as he was concerned, everything that was happening was directed at him. Lightyear is the film in which he first learns to consider the feelings of others, but it feels less like an origin story and more like the middle chapter in the ongoing Buzz Lightyear adventure franchise.
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The plot of the film revolves around Buzz and his band of loyal fellow space explorers’ struggle to escape the planet. At first, he attempts to take control of his own rocket ship and achieve hyperspace; however, each time he fails and returns from an experimental mission, he is only a few minutes older, despite the fact that several years have passed on Earth. Capt. Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), a close friend and coworker, has a child, gets married (to a woman; the film admirably makes no big deal about this), and eventually dies. Izzy (Keke Palmer), her grandchild and doppelganger, joins Buzz’s crew along with Sox (Peter Sohn), a hilariously matter-of-fact robot feline who looks like he was bought in a souvenir shop, Darby Steel (Dale Soules), a crusty crook, and Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), a walking nerve case.
Can they take out the alien spaceship that seems to be floating above them, commanded by a horned mega bot with red devil eyes, Emperor Zurg (James Brolin)? It turns out that this malicious robot is someone you know all too well. The chases and escapes in “Lightyear” are hilarious, and the movie also features some clever gags, such as one involving the development of the sandwich and another involving IVAN, the auto-pilot that Buzz despises. Considering the movie on its own terms, which are those of an eager-pleaser, it proves to be a fun time. But it should be noted that this is one of those Pixar movies that feels like it has 50% Disney DNA, given that it is a spinoff of the “Toy Story” series, the greatest and most sustained achievement in contemporary animation.
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Buzz, with his handsome thrusting chin and delirious assurance, reminded me of George Clooney the first time I saw “Toy Story,” but when I found out he was voiced by Tim Allen, I was taken aback. Allen has done an excellent job throughout all three sequels of portraying Buzz with that unique blend of heroism and fatuous narcissism; however, I still picture the character as being more Clooney-like. Chris Evans, who voices him in “Lightyear,” does a serviceable job of channeling Buzz’s pilot-as-game-show-host-of-his-own-legend persona, though some of Allen’s snap is lost in the translation. The comic value of the character has diminished, and they now appear a little more ordinary.
That he is a toy in the “Toy Story” movies is, of course, a part of the joke, but Buzz isn’t always in on it. He really believes he is the Space Ranger! As a result, transforming Buzz Lightyear into the Space Ranger simultaneously enlarges and reduces his size. You need to dial down his bluster. Buzz’s main goal throughout the film is to return home and continue his space exploration career. With his friends by his side, he doesn’t realize he’s already at home. That’s a sweet but predictable message, and I found myself agreeing with Buzz that, despite the film’s merits as entertainment, he should be featured in something more noteworthy. Which begs the question: Will “Woody’s Wild West” be next? Because that seems like an attempt to milk “Toy Story” for all its spin-off worth at the expense of the toy and, possibly, the fun.