Pixar has a great track record at this point. Upon hearing that we would get a spinoff of the Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. Pixar is so good at creating fresh stories, why would they choose to make a fifth film in this world? Lightyear does circumvent being another Toy Story film with a clever setup, this is the film Andy watched that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy back in 1995. It is a clever move that quickly explains why Chris Evans is now voicing Buzz. It also allows the film to be a space adventure rather than a domestic one.
Lightyear is ambitious, forging a story built around a vast universe, an alien planet, and the development of a new human settlement. At its core, the film is about how one person deals with the failures and losses that accumulate over time. Time plays a big role as Buzz learns he needs other people in his life, a common theme of Pixar films. It is a strong theme that should resonate more than it does. The issue is the plotting feels disjointed and often a bit shallow.
As the film opens, Buzz is a human astronaut who is part of the elite Space Rangers. He is part of a mission into deep space on a giant ship holding many cryogenically frozen settlers. The ship gets diverted off course to explore signs of life. Alisha (Uzo Aduba), Buzz's commanding officer, and he go exploring and realize the planet is hostile. Buzz tries to get the ship off the planet safely but miscalculates and ends up damaging the ship's fuel crystal, leaving them stranded. Buzz soon becomes obsessed with fixing his mistake and so takes on a series of test missions to try out fuel crystal formulas. Each time he goes, he hits hyper speeds that cause his time to slow while years go by. What seems like an hour mission to him can be four years on the planet. A beautiful Pixar montage shows the passing of time during these missions as Buzz watches Alisha get married, have kids, and eventually die. When she does, Buzz's new commander decides to shut down the test missions in favor of just settling in on the planet. Buzz sees this as giving up on his mission and soon steals a ship to continue the testing. This leads to a big adventure that provides us with the full story of Zurg, Buzz's famous nemesis from the Toy Story films.
There is a lot more plot, which is one of the things that hamper the film. So much of the film zips by without any time to explain the details. We never do get a sense of what the original plan was for the settlers, for example. However, when the film kicks into 90's space-action mode, Lightyear soars. The action set pieces are big, thrilling, and creative featuring some wonderful alien designs. We get killer robots, giant bugs, and a rag-tag team that joins Buzz.
While the action is great and the animation is often stunning, the humor in the film is in desperate need of a punch-up. There is a running joke with the ship's AI that never works. Buzz is given a robot cat to help him cope with the loss of people and time. It is cute but their exchanges feel like a first draft. Pixar is usually so dialed in with smart jokes that Lightyear suffers by comparison to other films.
Evans does a nice job as Buzz but the film's standout voice performance comes from Keke Palmer who plays Izzy, Alisha's granddaughter who joins Buzz in his mission. Her voice performance oozes personality and sass. Izzy also gets the most satisfying character arc as she proves she can be a Space Ranger like her grandma.
Problems aside, Lightyear is still an enjoyable watch. While it may not be as tightly constructed as other Pixar films, it has plenty to admire. First and foremost is the animation. I saw the film in IMAX and was often stunned by the visual sophistication and detail here. Space has rarely looked so awe-inspiring.