If there’s one word that summed up the concept of Pixar’s Lightyear when it was first announced, it’s confusion. The Disney subsidiary’s 26th animated film is one that can be framed in many ways: it’s a Toy Story spin-off, but one that doesn’t feature the iconic toys; it’s also a semi-prequel of sorts, it being the film that inspired Buzz Lightyear’s toy range in the Toy Story franchise; and to further complicate matters, it’s an in-universe Pixar film – one utterly adored by Andy, Toy Story’s human protagonist – subsequently and distinctly meta in its approach.
- Releasing theaters on Friday, June 17
- 26th Pixar animated feature film
- Focuses on the origin story of Buzz Lightyear
- Buzz voiced by former Marvel star Chris Evans
- Directed by Angus MacLane; produced by Galyn Susman
None of the above, though, is detrimental to the joyous, intergalactic romp that Lightyear is. Pixar’s latest feature-length project is a soaring, cosmic action-adventure flick that’s as much a celebration of classic sci-fi as it is of the Toy Story series. It’s a tad formulaic on occasion, but Lightyear’s thrilling action, humor, and heart help it shine as one of the brightest stars in the Pixar sky.
Lightyear tells the story of Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans), a Space Ranger leading humanity’s exploratory journey through the universe before he becomes the legendary figure audiences know him to be. When one particular mission goes awry, though, Buzz inadvertently maroons himself, his commander Alisha Hawthorne (Udo Azuba), and his ship’s 1,200-strong crew on a hostile world 4.2 million light years from Earth.
With the vessel’s hyperspeed crystal – the fuel cell that allows for intergalactic travel – destroyed after Buzz ship crashes the ship on the alien-infested planet, he vows to make amends. Enlisting the help of the crew’s scientists and his trusty AI cat companion Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz creates a new, experimental hyperspeed crystal with the aim of getting everyone home safely.
However, when Buzz and Sox embark on a test flight to test the crystal’s stability, they unwittingly travel to the same planet that they’re marooned on, but decades into the future. Desperate to return to the present, Buzz and Sox join forces with an ambitious but inexperienced crew led by Izzy (Keke Palmer), the granddaughter of Alisha Hawthorne, to aid his quest. But, with the menacing robot overlord Zurg (James Brolin) leading an uprising against the descendants of his former squad, a conflicted Buzz must choose whether to travel back to the past or stay and fight alongside his new friends.
For a story about a character being flung into the far future, the casting of former Marvel movie star Chris Evans as the titular hero feels like a natural fit. Evans is no stranger to playing a man out of time – after all, he played Steve Rogers/Captain America, a character born in 1918 who’s thrust into the 21st century at the end of Cap’s first solo film. Given the initial furore over his casting – fans were upset that Tim Allen, Buzz’s original voice actor, wasn’t chosen to voice the character’s ‘live-action’ (in the context of the movie) incarnation – there were many who didn’t think Evans was the right person for the job.
Fans with any lingering concerns need not worry. Evans delivers a performance not only as comedic and melodramatic as Allen’s, but one that also pays tribute to the way in which the latter originally brought Buzz to life. Evans finds a delicate balance between honoring Allen’s portrayal through his choice of oratorical style, as well as bringing a fresh, nuanced spin to the iconic Space Ranger. This is a Buzz as stoic and uncompromising as Toy Story’s version, but one whose humanity is explored in greater depth thanks to Evan’s emotive performance.
Wonderful as Evans’ Buzz is, the character is unsurprisingly upstaged by Sohn’s Sox. Buzz’s robotic feline sidekick is the star of the show, supplying the film’s biggest laughs and charming his way through its 100-minute runtime. The rapport Sox has with Buzz feels natural and is distinctive as the latter's now iconic friendship with Woddy in the Toy Story franchise. Based on his scene-stealing display, expect Sox to be one of the must-have toys this coming Christmas.
Falling with style
Lightyear is much more than its protagonist and adorable sidekick, though. In true Pixar fashion, it’s a visually stunning movie; a cosmic kaleidoscope of colors, a chunky and cinematic animation style, and dazzling space-travel sequences. The decision to release Lightyear in IMAX format – the first animated feature film in theatrical history to receive such an honor – only adds to its awe-inspiring aesthetic. Lightyear’s lightspeed sequences are a particular beneficiary of its increased 1:43:1 aspect ratio, enhancing the film’s eye-popping hues and its visual scope – space is vast, after all – uniformly.
A film that’s centered around space travel, even one that’s animated, demands a degree of scientific authenticity. Pleasingly, Pixar worked closely with NASA to capture many of the practical and theoretical elements of intergalactic exploration, albeit recreating them through a cartoonish lens. Seeing Buzz use real-world algebra and math to steer his retrofuturistic starship back on course, amid an amusing back and forth with his Alexa-style navigation system, in one particular scene is a perfect example – it’s a satisfyingly fun moment wrapped up in real science that encapsulates the tone and vibe that Lightyear’s creative team has gone for.
Lightyear also draws plenty of inspiration from some of cinema’s best-loved sci-fi classics. From Star Wars and The Terminator to Aliens and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lightyear is a homage to the genre’s trailblazing productions. More recent sci-fi films, such as Interstellar and Gravity, are subtly referenced to equally pleasing effect, while fans of Toy Story will be delighted to hear that there are numerous nods to Buzz from Pixar’s most recognizable film series, too. Buzz’s legendary catchphrase is of course part of the proceedings, and there’s more in the same vein; these call-backs won’t come as a surprise, but they’re satisfying additions nonetheless.
If there’s one aspect where Lightyear falls short, it’s the movie’s slightly predictable plot threads. There’s a fascinating twist as the film’s second act heads into its third and final phase, plus some extra revelatory content during Buzz’s hyperspeed crystal test flight, that make for enthralling and fairly shocking moments. Those moments aside, Lightyear largely follows the same story beats that other Pixar films have, with similar plot threads and devices to what we've seen in many other Pixar productions.
That, it hardly needs saying, is no bad thing – Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios of all time, and much of its success is down to its award-winning filmmaking formula. Nevertheless, it’s a bit too easy to work out where Lightyear’s plot will go next. Add in a couple of overused slapstick moments – the vine joke, as seen in the trailer, gets old pretty quickly – and Lightyear isn’t immune to veering off course at times.
Lightyear is another sublime entry in Pixar’s back catalog. It’s propelled into the stratosphere – and beyond – by stellar voice performances, breathtaking animation, and a classic redemption story that’s sure to resonate with viewers of every age and cinematic upbringing.
It suffers from some niggly storyline issues and, compared to some of its Pixar siblings, it lacks that elusive extra ingredient that would make it a masterpiece. It doesn’t have the emotional gravitas of Coco, Up, Toy Story 3, or even Turning Red, and nor does it have the existential and abstract appeal of Soul or Inside Out.
Even so, as an overall package, Lightyear triumphantly sticks the landing. It’s an absolute blast from start to finish, a rip-roaring adventure, and a love letter to the sci-fi genre that’s sure to thrill adults and kids alike. As the first Pixar movie to launch exclusively in theaters since 2020’s Onward – the last three have all debuted on Disney Plus – expect Lightyear to soar to box-office infinity and beyond when it arrives.
Lightyear will arrive exclusively in theaters on Friday, June 17.