“Toy Story” will always hold a very special place in my heart. As with “Jurassic Park” in my review last week, one of my earliest memories is of “Toy Story.” I distinctly remember seeing it in the theater with my family when I was 2 years 8 months old.
In preparation for this week’s film, “Lightyear,” an offshoot of the Disney and Pixar series, I rewatched the original 1995 film and I couldn’t believe how well it holds up. The amount of detail and world building the animators created with the technology they had then is astounding, and its screenplay is near-flawless with dozens of jokes that land perfectly.
But all these years later, with the stronghold Disney and Pixar have had on the film industry, especially in animation, the last thing I was ready for was a new Buzz Lightyear movie that’s set within the world of “Toy Story” but not a part of the main continuity. With four feature films and about a dozen short films and TV specials – not to mention the stage shows, theme park attractions and video games – I assumed this property had run its course.
Lo and behold, “Lightyear” is now in theaters, serving as the origin story for the character that inspired the toy. As the opening text that serves as a framing device explains, a young Andy got the toy for his birthday in 1995 after seeing his favorite movie. This is that movie.
And while it’s a lot of fun as one of Pixar’s few action-adventure films compared to its recent trend of introspective character pieces, the little voice in the back of my head never let me forget that this is really nothing more than a corporate money machine cashing in on my nostalgia. It’s really well made, but in terms of character and story, it doesn’t come close to infinity and beyond.
“Lightyear” tells the story of a young astronaut Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) who, with a crew of deep space travelers on a trek to a new home world, is stranded on a hostile new planet and, with the help of a fellow team of Space Rangers, must find a way to get back on course.
While Buzz continues to try test run after test run of light-speed technology and fuel, the time back on the planet continues as normal. Buzz jumps forward about five years every time he flies off and back until one day when he returns and a ship of robot alien invaders holds nearly his entire team and captive crew.
With the help of a ragtag group of outcast space ranger wannabes (voiced by Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and Dale Soules) and the robotic cat companion Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz must learn how to work with a team to defeat the unwelcome visitors and save his people.
The best thing this film has going for it is the fun caveat of supposedly being a film from 1995 because everything about it is inspired by science fiction films from that era or earlier. There’s nothing that looks or feels like “The Matrix” or the “Star Wars” prequels, and all the technology within the story is based on what we had in 1995 or imagined what future we would have based on that time period. So a significant lack of digital and WiFi tech in favor of analog and radio was a smart choice that, unsurprisingly, tugged on those nostalgia threads.
Unfortunately, most of the characters are not to level one would expect from Pixar at this stage. All of the actors do a wonderful job bringing some life to them, but each character feels more like a plot device or ends to a means, filling a role in Buzz’s journey rather than a fleshed-out person. It says something when the Sox, the robot cat, is the most emotionally effective character in the film.
Despite being a significant downgrade for Disney and Pixar, there are a lot worse movies families could see. Well-made and well-acted but a nostalgic moneymaking exercise at its core, “Lightyear” is a fun adventure with nothing more to say.