"To infinity and beyond."
Ever since Pixar debuted Toy Story in November of 1995, the studio has been on a tear. The franchise, centered around cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), won over audiences, churning out three sequels, a mountain of merchandise, and a plethora of emotions. So it seems only fitting that the studio would expand the universe to show how the iconic Buzz came into existence. Though in familiar Pixar fashion, the approach and execution are anything but conventional.
A meta look at the world within a world, Lightyear is the original film that introduced Andy, the child whose room houses the toys we have come to know and love, to Buzz Lightyear. It sparked the transition (and competition) between Woody and Buzz in the original film. It is the reason we have Toy Story.
But it is also presented with little context. Outside of knowing it's Andy's favorite film, Lightyear receives no backstory, no explanation of its success. The technique gives you the inner illusion that you are, in some odd way, Andy, sitting excitedly in the middle of a crowded theater, surrounded by good friends and high expectations. For many, it will be a joyous experience. For others, it won't make sense.
Oddly Tim Allen has been replaced by Chris Evans in the titular role. I assume it is an age thing, wanting Buzz to sound younger; however, in animation, it shouldn't matter. He is joined by Uzo Aduba and Keke Palmer as Alisha Hawthorne and her granddaughter Izzy. The three do a fine job with their voice work, bringing emotion and excitement to the story, though none are able to replicate the magic of the original cast.
The film begins as a young Buzz and Alisha embark on an assignment examining potential life on a far away planet. Unfortunately, the mission turns south when an underground creature wrecks havoc on their ship, marooning them until they can create a new hyper fuel crystal. But every time Buzz tests a new formula, years pass (think Interstellar, but animated). As the world around him changes drastically, Buzz finds himself left behind, unable to experience a new life on a new planet. When a crystal finally proves successful, he circles back to see a world overtaken by alien beings, setting up an inner fight for survival.
At its core, Lightyear is a classic Pixar film that offers few surprises. Expected humor, mixed with unparallel emotions, keeps it firmly positioned within the brand. That said, it's hard not to acknowledge the missing magic that gave Toy Story its universal appeal. I can't quite place it, but the spark is dimmer than expected as we struggle to relate.
But in that same vein, this isn't a Toy Story film. Though situated within the same universe and bearing similar overarching themes, Lightyear is a breath until itself. It's unique in its own way and must be treated as such. Evans satisfies, Peter Sohn's turn as Sox, the computerized emotional support cat, is memorable, and both Take Waititi and Dale Soules provide just enough Pixar-humor that the story labors its way to a satisfying conclusion.
Pixar has created a high benchmark regarding its universal successes. While Lightyear isn't their best output, it's a solid, fun, and entertaining escape. And though the time travel and inner dilemma are a bit overdone, you can't harp on the creativity–this film technically debuted over 25 years ago. And the studio still knows how to entertain patrons of all ages, which others would benefit from taking note.