Lightyear Review – You’ll Believe It’s Andy’s Favorite Movie

Lightyear might be based on a popular Toy Story character, but Pixar uses the basic character as a launching pad for their own exciting science fiction series that truly feels like it could have been a child’s favorite movie.

The marketing and release around Lightyear has been an interesting one from a cultural standpoint. The film sees Pixar making the movie that exists within the Toy Story universe that inspired the actual Buzz Lightyear toy line in a very meta exercise. This is the movie that Andy would have seen, and while this premise is incredibly simple to understand despite the high concept, it appears there has been a performative confusion online with many overthinking the relatively simple pitch. On top of that, the take for the audience is an added layer. In many ways, Lightyear is the big-budget adaptation of the Buzz Lightyear IP in our world, taken from the concept of just a toy in Toy Story and now reimagined as a larger science-fiction franchise. It’s a bit of a meta hat on top of a meta hat, but go with it.

The thrill is seeing something like an old property get ‘the movie’ treatment. This trend really did explode in the 1990s when television series like The Adams Family, Lost In Space, and Mission: Impossible all saw themselves get the big-screen treatment after having been staples of 60’s television. While Batman was an adaptation of the comic book, it in many ways was the thrill of seeing how the character from the 1960s television show would be reimagined for a then-modern blockbuster. Less time passed between Adam West Batman and Michael Keaton’s Batman than when Tim Allen first voiced Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story to Chris Evans taking on the role. In many ways Lightyear serves millennials what the 2007 Transformers film did for Gen X audiences, seeing a beloved toy and animated character reimagined as a big-budget Hollywood action film.

The story sees Buzz Lightyear land on an uninhabited planet and accidentally ends up stranding himself and the entire crew of his ship there. While the ship’s crew sets up a colony on the planet, they also attempt to recreate the crystallic fusion (a reference to the first Toy Story film) to restart their hyperdrive and bring everybody home as Buzz feels guilty for stranding everyone on the planet. However each time Buzz makes a test flight using the fuel source, he ends up losing four years. While Buzz keeps trying, his friends grow old and life passes him by. On the final mission, Buzz ends up leaping farther into the future than before to discover the planet has now been occupied by the minions of Zurg, and Buzz must team up with a rag-tag crew of inexperienced space cadets and his own trusty robot companion cat Sox to save the day and bring everybody home.

What truly makes Lightyear work is the film’s commitment to making a stand-alone space adventure. While it uses Buzz Lightyear as the basic launching pad, and there are certainly references to the dialog in Toy Story (mostly in the beginning of the film) and the film sees pieces of Buzz’s costume come together, there aren’t a lot of winking nods to the wider Toy Story franchise. It stays committed to its own film reality and gets the audiences invested in these characters. The film stands on its own, even to someone who has never seen a Toy Story film. It almost becomes an afterthought you are watching a movie based on a character from Toy Story and instead just a very cool old fashion science fiction adventure film, one that can liven up the imagination of young viewers with great characters. Buzz Lightyear in the film is both familiar to the character audiences know but also is allowed to be his own thing.

Evans does a great job in the role of Buzz, giving the same committed, by-the-book commanding presence that the toy Buzz is known for while also giving off the presence of a 90’s action hero. Keke Palmer voices Izzy Hawthorne, the granddaughter of Buzz’s best friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba), and gives the character youthful energetic energy that helps provide a character younger audiences can see themselves in. Taikia Waititi and Dale Soules are on hand as Mo and Darby, and they provide a fair amount of comedic relief although it does feel like they could have benefited from some additional scenes to move beyond their joke archetypes. James Brolin voices Zurg in what is the film’s most fun reimagining of the classic Toy Story iconography, making the character as menacing and commanding as possible whose redesign is one of the coolest power armors in recent memory. The standout character though is the robot cat Sox, voiced by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn, who basically steals the show and has much of the film’s best laughs.

Like all Pixar films, there is a greater thematic heft to the film than some traditionally animated films and this movie is, interestingly, about the dangers of nostalgia. That is an odd central theme for a movie whose entire marketing campaign is for audiences to be excited about the Buzz Lightyear character from the past Toy Story movies but that is kind of the point. At a critical moment in the film, Buzz is given the choice to go back and fix his mistake, but that would mean undoing everyone’s present and the character must come to terms with why is his past more important than these people’s future. Buzz is so preoccupied with fixing his mistake and changing the past, he misses out on his friends’ lives. He made a mistake, but his character flaw is not allowing himself to make a mistake and move on, and live life. Buzz Lightyear the character must move on, and accept the reality of the present and try to embrace a future that he may not have had planned, and in many ways that is Lightyear’s mission statement for the wider Toy Story franchise.

Audiences the world over know Buzz’s signature catchphrase “to infinity and beyond,” but with Lightyear, they may have found a way to weave that into the DNA of the film. They might not be able to keep going back to the well of Woody and Buzz forever, but there are still ways to tell interesting stories and move the franchise forward beyond what was traditionally thought. Lightyear shows a promising sign of a new Pixar franchise as the Toy Story film series moves beyond infinity.

While Lightyear may not reach the emotional heights of some of Pixar’s past work or even the same greatness as the previous Toy Story films, it aims for something different. Lightyear is Pixar committing to making a big summer blockbuster film, and wanting to make the movie that would have made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear toy and it succeeds on those merits. Lightyear is an exciting science fiction adventure, and while I can’t speak for how kids will respond, I know that I myself certainly felt like a kid watching it and I wanted to go out and buy a Buzz Lightyear toy just like Andy did on his birthday.