Review: Pixar's 'Lightyear' Sends Buzz on a Voyage Through Time
by Alex Billington
June 16, 2022
Pixar's latest sci-fi space adventure movie Lightyear opens with three short sentences that introduce the concept: in Toy Story, Andy wanted the Buzz Lightyear toy because he saw a movie about Buzz. "This is that movie." Now having seen this movie myself, I can definitively say: yes, I want a Buzz Lightyear toy, too. Or more accurately, since Toy Story takes place in 1995, I would've totally wanted a Buzz Lightyear toy when I was growing up in the 90s, too. They definitely got this part of it right. It may not be Pixar's best movie, but it's definitely not their worst; it's the kind of vastly entertaining, emotional, heartfelt and humorous Pixar adventure we all expect from this iconic animation studio. They never, ever miss. Every movie they make is delightful. Every story they tell is exciting and memorable and crafted with care. Lightyear is no exception.
Pixar's Lightyear, directed by Angus MacLane (also a co-director on Finding Dory) from a screenplay by Jason Headley & Angus MacLane, is set entirely on a different planet. None of it takes place on Earth, which is totally fine because this is a sci-fi adventure about a Space Ranger. Chris Evans voices the "real" Buzz Lightyear, an intrepid and fearless Space Ranger on a mission leading a massive turnip-shaped spaceship to colonize another planet. Along the way, he diverts to investigate a potentially interesting planet and crash lands, leaving him and the rest of the entire crew marooned. Buzz is racked with guilt and spends most of the movie trying to figure out how to fix this mistake, repair the ship, recreate a new lightspeed crystal, and get everyone back on course. But he discovers that even though that is his mission and he must complete it, things may end up going another way and that's totally okay, too. An important lesson that Buzz must learn.
The best characters in Lightyear are the handful of those that surround Buzz, not necessarily Buzz himself. He is a hard-headed space captain, who can only focus on the mission, and he's not the most endearing or lovable guy (though he is pretty cool). The best character in this movie is SOX, his robot cat that joins him on all of his excursions, voiced by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn. There's also Keke Palmer as Izzy Hawthorne and Uzo Aduba as Alisha Hawthorne, fellow Space Rangers that have more humility and help soften Buzz's rough edges. Then there's also the other crew members, various robots and weirdos that play into the story, including a robot named DERIC voiced by director Angus MacLane himself, Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Cmdr Burnside, Taika Waititi as Mo Morrison, and Dale Soules as Darby Steel. I'm pretty sure everyone will enjoy this bunch once they get to meet them, as their quirks are part of what make each one so memorable.
What I always enjoy about Pixar movies is the way they make unexpected, surprising decisions throughout. I've written about this before – sometimes they make some truly astonishing choices, other times they stay on course for the most part. With Lightyear, that big surprise comes right at the end of the 2nd act, just as Buzz is getting closer to figuring out how to get the mission back on course. He's so driven that he forgets to live life, he forgets that there is something more than finishing that original mission. It's no surprise that Lightyear involves time travel, or time dilation, or whatever you want to call it. It's a common sci-fi trope, and Lightyear uses this trope in the same way so many other sci-fi movies before it have - to make people understand how precious time is and how important it is to not waste, especially when it comes to spending time with loved ones. It's always heartening to see this in a story even if it is a bit of an overused sci-fi trope.
While the film is based around Buzz Lightyear, the Hawthorne Space Rangers are the more fascinating and compelling characters. I wanted to spend more time with them, to understand their story and personality, and learn more about their experiences. They help balance Buzz's intensity so well, and that's an important part of his story, too. There's also a twist regarding the villain that some will say they saw coming, but that doesn't matter. It's an obvious twist nonetheless, again another sci-fi trope that Lightyear rehashes for its story. It makes sense but it's also not the most exciting reveal overall. Honestly, I can't really fault them too much for borrowing so many ideas from other sci-fi entertainment because this ultimately is supposed to be a throwback 90s sci-fi homage. That is the whole point of the movie, that's why it exists, and even if that means there isn't much of a worthwhile story to tell, sci-fi geeks like me should enjoy watching this anyway.
Even with some minor flaws, Lightyear is a thrilling space adventure in every sense yet is still a Pixar movie at heart. It's built and shaped and modeled and designed by a huge team of filmmakers in Emeryville that love making movies and telling stories. I always love Pixar movies, so of course I love this one, too. I won't pretend I don't have this kind of bias, especially because I trust them and trust they bring in the right people to work for them. However, as much as I want this movie to be my new favorite, it doesn't reach that level of brilliance. They shoot for the stars with this, and while it's an enjoyable experience overall, they never quite make it all the way to where they were aiming. Then again, this is the precisely the story the movie is telling, a reminder to viewers that not every mission can be accomplished but that doesn't mean it's a failure either.