By George Bate
The premise of Lightyear can be a little tricky to wrap your head around. This is not a sequel to Toy Story 4 or even a spin-off origin story of Buzz Lightyear. Instead, this is the movie that Andy from Toy Story watched as a kid and from which his Buzz Lightyear toy is inspired by. Star Chris Evans described it as “Andy’s Star Wars.” The opening title card succinctly describes this premise: “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” In this sense, Lightyear marks audiences’ return to the world of Toy Story from a unique, unexpected, meta-aware angle.
Lightyear follows legendary space ranger Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Captain America himself Chris Evans), whose over-confidence leads to a catastrophic mission failure. This failure sees Lightyear and his team stranded, forced to spend decades testing new sources of hyper speed fuel to find their way home. With an Interstellar-esque plot device, these decades pass as mere hours to Lightyear. Now, years (or minutes) later, Lightyear teams up with the granddaughter of his former partner and a team of other trainees to fight Zurg.
It’s immediately clear in watching Lightyear that the film deserves praise for trying something different with an existing franchise. Do audiences really need another Toy Story universe movie? Maybe? Probably not? So, the approach that the filmmakers take with this film is one of ambition and novelty. Sitting as a viewer, imaging what it would have been like for Andy to watch this film in 1995 and fall in love with Buzz Lightyear, has a certain emotional effect, albeit one that audiences will likely need to proactively think about rather than passively perceive.
In a manner similar to Toy Story 4, Lightyear is visually beautiful, competently made, and, unfortunately, disappointingly straightforward. The original Toy Story trilogy is, without a doubt, one of the best, emotionally rich and heartfelt cinematic trilogies of all time. Toy Story 4 then came along and was a well made, yet uninspired film when compared to its predecessors. And the same can be said for Lightyear. Are there great moments in the movie? Of course. Is the animation stunning, in typical Pixar fashion? Most definitely. But the profound emotional impact of the Toy Story trilogy is sorely lacking here. While Toy Story 1-3 explore deeply impactful themes of growing up and letting go, Lightyear opts for a more standard and unoriginal tale of a man overcoming his hubris and realizing the benefits of working with others as a team.
Beyond its emotionally hollowness relative to the films it was inspired by, there is very little at fault in Lightyear. The adventure that occupies much of Lightyear’s runtime is undoubtedly entertaining and will hold audiences’ interest (despite an unusual, third act integration of time travel). Chris Evans takes over Tim Allen’s role excellently and plays Buzz Lightyear to perfection here. Taika Waititi and Keke Palmer play some of Buzz’s team members, and they bring a lot of joy and banter to the film. To top it all off, Michael Giacchino’s score is incredible. From Spider-Man: No Way Home to The Batman to Lightyear now, what a running the accomplished composer is on.
The miles audiences get out of Lightyear will largely come down to management of expectations and weight of the comparisons to the original Toy Story films. Lightyear is a more than competent film, checking all the boxes that make for an entertaining and wholesome family trip to the movies. Despite this, it’s difficult not to compare the ultimately standard and emotionally hollow Lightyear to the masterful and profound original Toy Story trilogy. Dull in comparison, but entertaining in isolation, Lightyear is worth a watch (if expectations and comparisons can be limited).