Pixar’s latest film, Lightyear, marks the fourth time they’ve gone back to the Toy Story well on the big screen. For most franchises that might not be seen as a sign of quality. (Looking at you Universal and Jurassic Park!) But here, Pixar has kept their standards high. The first Toy Story sequel won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. The second sequel was just the third animated film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. And the third sequel, while not as highly acclaimed as the previous two, still won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Can the studio keep the franchise moving towards infinity and beyond? Or after flying so high is it about to fall without style and burn up in the atmosphere?
I usually synopsize a movie in the second paragraph of my reviews. But for this movie there has been a question lingering that probably should be answered up front: how does this film connect to the Toy Story canon? That’s answered right at the beginning with text explaining that in 1995, Andy saw a movie featuring the fictional character Buzz Lightyear. He loved it so much he got the action figure for his birthday that year. We’re then told, “This is that movie”.
The story follows Buzz Lightyear and his fellow space rangers as they divert from a mission to explore an uncharted planet. They end up stranded after an attack from the local flora and fauna destroys their hyperdrive. Buzz makes it his single-minded mission to fix what he sees as his mistake. The rest of the crew decides on a different course. So Buzz is forced to rely on a small group of ragtag rookies to try to get everyone home.
The plot is a fairly by-the-numbers and straightforward story. There are no big surprises and the tension is never dialed up very high. Unlike many other Pixar features, there is really no strong emotional through-line driving viewers to feel the highs and lows along with the characters. That means no tears this time out! But it also means we don’t care as much about what our protagonist is going through. On top of all that, it’s also not an extremely funny film. Sure, there are laughs throughout. But it’s more action-adventure oriented than comedy-based, which might be surprising to some fans.
Now you’re probably reading that and thinking, “Predictable, lacks heart, and not funny? So it’s pretty bad, huh?” Well, not really! It’s actually a solid little film. Plotwise, the writers have given the characters realistic motivations and interesting conflicts. So rest assured that this is not a boring story. Emotionally, the characters are moved to make the choices they make for personally important reasons. And those are explored. And we can understand their differing points of view. True, it never rises to the point of making you feel personally invested, but that doesn’t mean the characters themselves aren’t. And a lack of non-stop laugh-out-loud humor doesn’t mean something isn’t fun. The filmmakers have crafted a film that is very different than what you might expect from Pixar. That alone doesn’t make it bad, but adjusting expectations might be a good idea.
Another story-point I want to mention are the references to Buzz Lightyear from the previous films. The writers have done their homework! Catching all the little things that explain or at least call-back to what toy Buzz did or said was a lot of fun. As a bonus, (and without giving much away) after the film be sure to consider the journey Buzz went through in this film; recap it in your mind… (I’ll expand on that in the comments if anyone would like me too!)
I am not saying the animation in Lightyear was bad, because it absolutely was not! But looking back I can’t really recall anything blowing me away or even standing out much. We may just be at a point where their quality is so good so often that we’re used to it, maybe even spoiled.
Michael Giacchino, who is no stranger to animation, sci-fi, or action adventure films, gets to put his considerable talents on display here, and it works well. Themes stand out, but occasionally things do get lost in the background.
One of the biggest fan reactions at the announcement of this film was the replacement of Tim Allen with Chris Evans as the voice of Buzz Lightyear. I thought this was an understandable decision since technically these are two different characters, and was willing to give Pixar the benefit of the doubt. That was the right call. Chris Evans wonderfully channels some of Allen’s vocal mannerisms and inflections while lending the character a lot more gravitas. James Brolin is a nice choice for Zurg. Keke Palmer and Dale Soules are solid sidekicks. Pixar director Peter Sohn is a lot of fun as a robotic cat named Sox. I’m a big fan of Taika Waititi. In movies like Jojo Rabbit, Thor, and Free Guy his eccentricities melded into his character. Here, though, I felt like Buzz Lightyear just had Taika Waititi hanging around with him. Fun maybe, but a bit distracting.
Overall, this was an enjoyable movie. Did it really need to be made? Perhaps not, but it’s here and it’s easily better than some of the other things we’ve had to sit through in recent years. Does it measure up to the rest of the Toy Story legacy films? No, but to be fair, that’s a high bar that hardly any follow-up from any studio for any franchise has ever been able to do. Should you see it? Yes, it’s definitely worth the time. Sure, it’s not the most buzz-worthy film in the Pixar vault. So maybe go in with your expectations lowered to just infinity.
directed by Angus MacLane