Pixar’s Lightyear feels like more than just a love letter to fans of the iconic Toy Story character. The latest animated feature goes all-in on a proper Buzz Lightyear film that preserves his best qualities. There’s a certain no-nonsense flair that pulls viewers into the space ranger’s exploits. But Chris Evans unboxes the action figure with deep character development that goes a step further than Tim Allen’s iteration.
That’s not to say Evans’ take on Buzz Lightyear is a reinvention. Instead, he pushes the role a bit further with two-hours of undivided attention. When viewers were hooked to Allen’s voice in 1995, it came with Buzz’s scene-stealing adventures. Toy Story 2’s opening scene would break reality as Buzz blasted his way through space. It was also a proof-of-concept for Pixar’s animators, who managed to tell a sci-fi adventure in minutes. Lightyear breaks the meta-immersion of Toy Story. In fact, a surprise opening message to audiences reminds them it’s unapologetically focused on Buzz’s universe.
I couldn’t think of anyone more worthy to fit Lightyear’s gung-ho demeanour. After all, it’s easy for Evans to fit Captain America in a spacesuit. He does exactly this with a bold confidence that matches Tim Allen in Toy Story. Evans has an uncanny – if not perfect – idea of what makes Buzz heroic. His personality is constantly tested by stakes that go beyond Andy’s room. Lightyear’s bigger scope is exactly what Buzz needed to develop. Evans shows this by backtracking on one-liners. He brings the toy further to life by humanising him. Viewers will forget Buzz is a toy in Lightyear, especially as he sheds tears and carries a few bruises. Lightyear works because it lets go of the Toy in his story.
Lightyear’s origin story is surprisingly not that ambitious. Pixar opts for the grounded approach to introduce Buzz. Without spoilers, he’s a pathfinder for human settlements. An action-packed prologue makes Buzz’ arrogance and lack of teamwork a big problem. This is enough to set off the film’s events in existential motion. Lightyear stays focused on Buzz, who develops into his iconic character in surprisingly thoughtful ways. But I leave it for viewers to see how Buzz deals with themes like grief, guilt and making mistakes. Evans reinvents Lightyear by adding weight in those heartfelt moments of dialogue. He shares the deepest chemistry with Commander Alisha Hawthrone (Uzo Aduba), who enjoys calling Buzz out for his heroic quirks. She’s clearly tired, but selflessly keeps up her energy for adventures with Buzz. Both share a common love of being in the space ranger suit. This shows with subtle, but endearing banter between Evans and Aduba. It’s natural enough to make viewers believe in their friendship. Which makes things more touching once Lightyear throws a curveball early on.
Buzz’s journey into leadership starts with Izzy (Keke Palmer) who pushes Lightyear’s time-hopping story forward as Alisha’s granddaughter. She dreams of being a fully-fledged Space Ranger like her grandmother and matches Buzz’s own drive to do good. But it’s not enough to sway Buzz, who reluctantly enlists her for help. It’s fun to see their dynamic constantly switch from a mentorship to inside jokes. Specifically when Buzz tries to recall some of Alisha’s memories through Izzy.
Lightyear finds plenty of humour through Izzy’s band of misfit cadets. Taika Waititi’s Mo Morrison plays a clumsy sharpshooter. But his self-awareness brilliantly ties into the film’s bigger message of mistakes. Mo and Darby (Dale Soules) add to funnier self-aware banter at the worst times. Adults will get just as much of a laugh as their kids thanks to Lightyear’s comedic timing. The real scene-stealer is Sox (played by Pixar senior animator Peter Sohn), whose artificial responses sent laughs in my theatre room. His lack of emotion drives Buzz crazy. But it’s incredibly hilarious to see Sox try acting like a cat for seconds at a time. That’s all the time it would take for viewers to love Sox.
For the first time since Toy Story 2, Emperor Zurg makes a return as a villain in Lightyear. Pixar is sparing with his appearances, but commands the screen like a walking tank. The film doesn’t really take advantage of his evil presence over its two-hour runtime. It’s surprising for viewers to see Buzz’s own ego being a bigger villain than Zurg. This is why viewers might be disappointed at seeing a proper Buzz vs. Zurg rematch.
Pixar stays at the top of their game with animation. Lightyear stuns by a wide margin as it takes viewers into the stars. Individual strands of hair rustle with Buzz. The experiences of characters can be told from scuff marks on every space suit. Reactions are shown creatively off the reflections of space visors. This is very much an animated film that packs an impressive amount of detail. While viewers could see Lightyear for the sheer technical showcase alone. It’s the case with every Pixar movie, whose animation evolved per release.
Pixar stumbles a bit with the story’s pacing. Certain parts at the beginning are told through montages to gloss over important story details. The plot falls short of its ambitions with a lack of world-building. While lack thereof hurts the film’s set pieces since there are so few of them.
Action is surprisingly abundant in this space adventure. Lightyear entertains with popcorn-munching thrills destined to keep kids rewatching for years to come. There’s a bit of a fever dream in seeing Pixar do more with Toy Story 2’s intro. Specifically, Pixar doesn’t skimp with laser-flying spectacle that flashes across the screen. Action scenes come sprinkled with clever Toy Story references. Fans might cheer at one near the end as Buzz fully embraces his identity (in a really cool slow motion take). Pixar takes every advantage of its drawing space with flying sequences. Lightyear takes Buzz to space across some beautifully awe-inspiring scenery. Here’s why I highly recommend audiences see it in IMAX. Only because it’s a rare film that uses every inch of the screen from corner to corner. Pixar understands how to turn off the music and wrap viewers around peaceful space.
Lightyear takes a bit of a gamble by setting its space ranger up for sequels. Evans earns his own space ranger suit by elevating Tim Allen’s role. It’s a thrilling origin story that lets viewers recapture Buzz’s inner action hero. The story adds a thoughtful message along with his character development, despite a fast-tracked conclusion that doesn’t do justice for its supporting cast. But the promise of more adventures is a long overdue statement for Pixar. Animators have done an incredibly impressive feat of putting Buzz Lightyear where he belongs. In doing so, Lightyear stuns with its larger than life grandeur that does what Toy Story couldn’t.