Try, if you can, to put aside all the off-screen Lightyear nonsense. What is this movie? How does it fit in with Toy Story? None of that matters. The first three frames of the latest Pixar animation film clear all that up simply and succinctly. In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy. It was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.
And Andy was right to like Lightyear because it’s an awesome movie. Filled with huge emotions and exciting action, it’s Pixar doing what Pixar does best: making big, family-friendly entertainment anyone can enjoy. Unlike some of Pixar’s better-known films though, Lightyear is much, much more straightforward. At its core, it’s a fairly standard time-travel adventure story. It’s a film designed to take you on a wild ride. And while that ride has a few bumps here and there, they don’t take away from its overall excellence.
Co-written and directed by Angus MacLane (Finding Dory), Lightyear is about a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) who makes a critical error on a mission. That error forces his entire team, including fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawhthore (Uzo Aduba), to be marooned on an alien planet. Buzz is determined to fix the problem though, and through some really surprising and at times sad events, he fails at doing so. He fails so badly, in fact, that he ends up traveling into a mysterious future where he meets Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer). There, he’s forced to team up with her and a few other recruits (voiced by Taika Waititi and Dale Soules) to stop an evil robot named Zurg (James Brolin).
It sounds kind of complicated when you type it out but Lightyear lays out all its conflicts very simply. And because of that simplicity, MacLane is able to highlight lots of complex human emotions. We learn about Buzz’s hubris and drive as well as his almost inhuman selflessness. Other characters are forced to grow and change despite impossible situations. And the story’s rapid passage of time results in some of those trademark heartbreaking moments Pixar is so good at.
After a dynamite first act, though, Lightyear’s second act is not as strong. As Buzz is forced to work with Izzy and her crew, solving the multiple problems that come with a killer robot hellbent on destruction, the plot takes over and Buzz gets pushed a bit to the background. Eventually, the development of the other characters and the escalation of the stakes in this act pay off big, but in the moment, they slow the film down just enough that it’s noticeable.
Thankfully, Lightyear takes a giant leap in the third act with some huge revelations and crazy set-pieces. Plus, throughout all of it is Buzz’s robot cat, Sox, who completely steals the show. Voiced by Peter Sohn (Doug from Up), Sox is hilarious, adorable, and resourceful. He’s an incredibly useful character that instantly endears himself to the audience. Over the course of the film, that adoration just grows and grows as he becomes more and more important to the plot, to the characters, and to us. He takes Lightyear up another notch.
Fans of Toy Story will notice a lot of subtle winks back to that movie, via some of the ships, props, and shot compositions, and sci-fi fans will find even more to love. On first viewing I picked up on nods to Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, 2001, Nintendo, Star Trek, and others—none of which are crucial to the plot or excessive, but are more examples of Pixar making a movie that works on multiple levels. There’s the core blockbuster, sci-fi adventure. Plenty of nerdy little Easter eggs. And lots of important worthwhile messages along the way too. Themes about embracing life, dealing with loss, and the importance of family are among the most prevalent. Basically, it’s the type of movie that will reward multiple viewings.
Lightyear isn’t quite as good as any of the Toy Story movies it’s based on, but it doesn’t have to be. It stands on its own, delivering the type of thrills and visuals Pixar likely never thought possible. Ultimately, it does exactly what it set out to do: show us a movie that a young kid, maybe even yours, will one day call their favorite.
Lightyear opens Friday, June 17.
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