I remember reading a scathing review for one of Paul McCartney’s solo albums. From anyone else, the author argued, the new songs would’ve been just fine. Adequate. But this is the guy who gave us “Hey Jude” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and there are no excuses for simply parring the course. Hate to say it, but that’s where we are with Pixar. Lightyear is a perfectly acceptable animated romp. Most of the jokes land, and the CGI is crisp and vibrant. But this is the studio behind “Finding Nemo” and “Up,” and fair or not, they have to be graded against themselves.
It doesn’t help that the Toy Story franchise reached a logical stopping point about two movies ago. Toy Story 3 found Buzz, Woody, and the gang at an existential crossroads, building to one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching conclusions in all of animation. That could’ve and should’ve been a glorious sunset. Toy Story 4 was cute and all, but it was also completely inessential. Lightyear ventures deeper into this terrain, even delving into a risky gambit that has kiboshed many filmmakers: A prequel. That’s right–this is an origin story about the movie starring the character who inspired the legendary toy. The underlying premise for Lightyear is just a little too meta for its own good.
The movie within the movie begins in deep space, where intrepid pilots Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) guide their massive starship to somewhere between infinity and beyond. They end up crashing on a perilous planet, where vine tendrils sprout from the ground to snatch away screaming victims. Buzz leads an escape attempt, but can’t get the ship into orbit. Marooned, the crew of several hundred astronauts must adapt to life on this distant world, all while figuring out how to restore light-speed travel back to their derelict spacecraft.
It’s here that Lightyear chucks a few brainy tidbits of astrophysics into the story. Buzz experiments with different crystals to power his ship, and each hyper-speed jump propels him several years into the future. As his colleagues slowly wrinkle and turn gray, Buzz remains the same age. Decades pass, and the crew slowly carves out a new civilization on this distant world. Meanwhile, Buzz blindly clings to his mission, jumping time after time, all while life passes him by.
During this stretch of the film, Lightyear has become the source of an incomprehensible controversy: A montage depicts Buzz’s buddies falling in love and moving on. Alisha marries another woman, and they settle down to raise a family. Somewhere in the years, they engage in an innocent peck that has rankled people worldwide. The real controversy is why this is even a thing. It makes sense for the character and organically fits within the story. For anyone curious, it is truly much ado about nothing. I wouldn’t blink to show my son this movie, and I truly hope no one else will, either.
Most of the rest of Lightyear settles into a fairly predictable groove. Buzz travels far enough ahead to meet a new crew of Space Rangers, including Alisha’s plucky granddaughter (Keke Palmer). Also with him for this journey is Sox (Peter Soho), a robotic cat with big dewy eyes and a powerful CPU. Sox scores a few laughs for cat owners, but he also feels tacked on for comic relief. Anybody who’s seen the Toy Story films or been to Disneyworld knows that Buzz and the gang will eventually run into Zurg. When the evil overlord makes an appearance, the screenwriters do manage to cook up a few surprises for his character.
While Evans turns in fine work as the redoubtable Space Ranger, I’m both baffled and bummed they didn’t have Tim Allen back for the role. Allen absolutely nailed Buzz’s vacant intrepidity, and his sheer guilelessness was a huge factor in the franchise’s success. I kinda get what the filmmakers were going for–this Buzz is different from that Buzz. At the same time, Allen has the range to play the character different ways, and his absence is conspicuous throughout Lightyear.
That leaves us with a film that’s good for a few chuckles and some medium thrills. Lightyear will be just enough to mildly divert kids and grownups alike. It’s adequate. I guess that’s the problem when you have “Let It Be” and “Blackbird” in your arsenal, “Silly Love Songs” kinda sucks by comparison. All the original Toy Story did was redefine the animation genre, more than any release since Snow White. Finding Nemo and WALL-E took that digital revolution even further, and greatly expanded its possibilities. Lightyear is perfectly okay, but it’s also not nearly enough.
105 min. PG. In theaters.