“In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favourite movie. This is that movie”. These are the words, plainly set against a black background, which make up the first frames of Lightyear, providing the metafictional justification for a further expansion of a universe which, after Toy Story 3, many believed was perfect as it was. Toy Story 4 came and, after a period of tense breath-holding, proved that there was life in the franchise yet.
Disney’s meta manoeuvre, therefore, is essentially the origin story of the real Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his early days as a Space Ranger, scanning the universe for signs of life and habitable planets with his space traversing partner and mentor, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Abuda), and cryogenically frozen crew. After becoming marooned on a hostile planet, Buzz and Alisha set up a base in order to develop a means of escape, which involves Buzz testing a rocket which can reach “hyperspeed” and use the gravitational pull of the planet’s star. After multiple attempts, Buzz loses years on Alisha as a result of time dilation, the consequence of reaching such unprecedented speed. Returning each time to find Alisha growing older and nurturing an ever-growing family, Buzz lands on his makeshift home from one orbit to Alisha’s devastating absence, the only remnant of her a message recorded in her old age, bidding a fond farewell to her space ranging partner. With the help of a robotic feline companion, Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz eventually perfects the mission, but returns on this occasion to find his base wiped out by a sinister robotic race, the Zurgs, whose intentions are menacingly unclear. The only survivors, a group of incompetent sub-rookies, including Alisha’s space-fearing granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) who lives in the shadow of her grandmother’s greatness, are Buzz’s sole hope of spearheading humanity’s, and the universe’s, survival effort.
In Pixar’s first theatrical release for two years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, something visually spectacular and fundamentally cinematic was necessary in order to entice people to the big screen and away from their Disney+ accounts, and, if Lightyear is anything, it is optically ambitious and stunning in its implementation. Scattered with visual callbacks to sci-fi’s rich aesthetic history, including 2001: A Space Odyssey’s light vortex, Lightyear contextualises how far CGI technology has come since 1995’s Toy Story, as well as Pixar’s reliable utilisation of its ever-expanding scope.
The film also does a good job of achieving the delicate balance of familiarity against the almost uncanny experience of an alternative version of a character held so intimately in so many hearts, with Chris Evans’s performance encapsulating its success in this regard; Buzz’s voice is just about familiar enough for you to care without ever resorting to imitation.
The movie is also clearly imbued with an infectious affection for science-fiction. Director Angus MacLane’s love of the genre seeps through in buckets. With Star Wars cited as a specific visual reference point in the film’s development, there are also thematic callbacks to such genre epics as Alien, The Martian and Interstellar. In the film’s splendour, their DNA is inextricably intertwined with Lightyear.
In the perfection of these elements, however, it appears that the filmmakers forgot to instil the feature with the heart and emotional gravitas of its source material. Yes, it is brimming with typically bumbling, lovable characters, with Taika Waititi’s comic turn as an incompetent Mo Morrison particularly effective, but Lightyear appears more concerned with tying up the ends of its increasingly unwieldy plot than exploring the thing that unites all great Pixar animations and sci-fi movies alike; the humanity of its ideas. It is there, but dishearteningly diluted by the erratically paced plot.
Lightyear is, nonetheless, worth seeing on the big screen, and almost inevitably the first of many of its kind.
Lightyear is released nationwide on 17th June 2022.
Watch the trailer for Lightyear here: