Lightyear review – Toy Story spin-off combines hard sci-fi with big laughs

Buzz Lightyear against a moonDisney/Pixar

Lightyear finds everyone’s favorite Space Ranger returning for a sci-fi adventure that takes him to a deadly planet, and then to infinity, and beyond. And while some of the jokes fall flat, and the storyline might be a little too sophisticated for young children, Lightyear works as both an entertaining Toy Story spin-off, and a potential franchise-starter for Buzz and his hilarious new friends.

“In 1995, a boy named Andy was given a Buzz Lightyear toy. It was taken from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”

Pixar’s newest animated effort begins with those words, succinctly explaining how Lightyear is a Toy Story offshoot while at the same time serving as something of a prequel to those movies, and a standalone story.

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That’s a lot to take in, but Lightyear isn’t concerned with spoon-feeding information, instead assuming viewers have an understanding of the toy iteration of Buzz, then thrusting them into the middle of a story about the astronaut that inspired him.

Who is Buzz in Lightyear?

Buzz is back in Lightyear.

The Buzz we meet at the start of Lightyear is reminiscent of the Toy Story version; brave, cantankerous, and filled with hubris. On a spaceship he christens The Turnip – because of its veg-like shape – he wakes from stasis with a mission; to investigate an uncharted planet.

Lightyear heads down with Star Command Officer Alisha Hawthorne to evaluate the land before waking their science crew. Through his ‘Log’ – a handy tool for exposition – we learn that Buzz likes to finish a mission, “no matter what the cost.” We also learn that he doesn’t like rookies or autopilots. Which isn’t ideal as he’s accompanied by both.

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But the big difference is in Lightyear’s voice, as where Tim Allen brought the character to life in the Toy Story movies, here Chris Evans is the actor getting Buzzed.

It’s a little less broad and more serious than Allen’s take, though Evans does sprinkle some of that Captain America stardust onto Lightyear’s similarly principled protagonist.

Lightyear serves adventures in space and time

A robot cat called Sox very nearly steals the film.

The planet Lightyear lands on is predictably hostile, with giant vines and big bugs attacking our heroes. Buzz fights back with a nifty lazer sword, and the trio make their escape, then quickly crash-land. And with their hyperspeed crystal destroyed, the Turnip crew is now marooned.

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Buzz blames himself, so while scientists put the planet’s vast resources to good use, guilt drives our hero to get them home. But those efforts are thwarted at every turn, with space and time becoming Lightyear’s enemies early in proceedings.

Buzz is then forced on the run – for reasons we won’t spoil here – going rogue as he endeavors to complete his mission and save his colleagues.

Lightyear doesn’t act alone however. There’s a robot cat called Sox who offers emotional support, while at the same time being surprisingly resourceful.  With the cat-bot’s help, he then assembles a rag-tag crew of wannabe Space Commanders to get the job done. Though frequently they are more of a hindrance than help.

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Meet Lightyear’s new crew

Izzy (Keke Palmer) just happens to be scared of space.

Those wannabes are voiced by Taika Waititi (as clumsy Mo), Dale Soules (as ageing criminal Darby Steel) and Keke Palmer (as Izzy, a space-fearing space cadet) and they bring the laughs when Lightyear’s plight threatens to become too grim.

James Brolin – father of Thanos actor Josh – follows in his son’s footsteps by playing space villain Zorg, and he’s menace personified as the film’s sinister antagonist.

Special mention should also go to the vocal stylings of Peter Sohn. An artist, animator, and story consultant at Pixar, Sohn also voiced the likes of Squishy in Monster University and Ciccio in Luca, and he’s on scene-stealing form here as the adorable Sox.

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Lightyear pays homage to the sci-fi greats

Lightyear wears its influences on its sleeve, paying homage to space-race classic The Right Stuff, and featuring an extended sequence that plays out like Alien for kids.

There are parallels with Lost in Space – though mercifully not the bad bits of the terrible movie – while the film also features respectful nods to both Star Trek and Star Wars.

Lightyear also winks in Toy Story’s direction, having fun with catchphrase “To infinity and beyond,” while “You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” gets one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Not all the jokes land though, most notably a strange bit of business with a sandwich, and a robot who is terrible at giving directions. That character even returns in one of the film’s three post-credit stings, when really it should be on the cutting room floor.

The Verdict – is Lightyear good?

The rag-tag team trying to save the day.

Lightyear is a blast, working as both rip-roaring space adventure, and illuminating study of the title character. The film gives Buzz an intriguing back-story, while the lessons he learns – about teamwork, and the true cost of a mission – are universal.

Much like the Toy Story films, it tugs on the heart-strings, particularly when focussing on Izzy’s storyline. The film doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance of the first three Toy Story movies, but it certainly packs a powerful punch. In featuring the first same-gender kiss in a Pixar movie, Lightyear is also a step in the right direction when it comes to diversity and representation in family fare.

The film provides fodder for the brain as well as the heart however, as director Angus MacLane and his co-writer Jason Headley inject some pretty hard sci-fi concepts into the script. Themes of time, fate and destiny become central to the film’s finale, and may well sail over younger viewers’ heads. But that means Lightyear doesn’t talk down to its audience, instead thrusting viewers into the action from the get-go, and challenging them to keep up for the duration.

The result is an entertaining thrill-ride that’s likely to be the first of many Lightyear movies. And if that doesn’t happen, Pixar can always go back to the source, and – deep breath – make an animated feature about the astronaut who inspired the movie which spawned the toy that starred in the film.

Lightyear is released this week, hitting US and UK screens on Friday, June 17.