Lightyear is described as Andy’s favourite movie – the film Buzz Lightyear is based on – but for all its sci-fi excitement it just doesn’t live up to Toy Story.
It’s impossible to predict what a child’s favourite movie will be. For a while, their love is trained towards the last thing they saw at the cinema, but eventually it will crystallise around a particular work. And nobody can quite know what that will be. Why are Frozen and Encanto bona fide cultural phenomena, while the equally excellent Tangled and Moana are merely as popular as the average Disney animation?
Lightyear, interestingly and rather boldly, sets its stall out from the first scene, telling us that a boy named Andy was gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy in 1995 – a toy inspired by his favourite movie. “This is that movie,” says the on-screen caption.
What follows is a sprightly and colourful, but ultimately slightly underwhelming intergalactic adventure – particularly as it sits in the gargantuan shadow of the four very entertaining Toy Story films. The film meets Buzz (Chris Evans) as a swashbuckling Space Ranger, exploring a distant planet alongside best buddy Commander Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) – a welcome example of a gay character being given a large role – with a ship full of humans in hypersleep. Things go very wrong indeed, stranding the entire party on the planet for several years. Director Angus MacLane and his co-writer Jason Headley then pilfer a concept from Interstellar as Buzz deals with time dilation in his attempts to finish the mission as a Space Ranger should.
Despite the Nolanesque ideas, this is fairly by-the-numbers stuff and there’s a sense throughout that just about everyone involved could do this in their sleep. Once the emotional poignancy of the time-bending stuff has been mined, the movie settles into a generic adventure in which Chris Evans does likeable all-American charisma alongside a slapstick robot cat – voiced enjoyably by Pixar artist Peter Sohn, director of the upcoming Elemental. It feels as if one of Hollywood’s most consistently imaginative studios has simply flicked into autopilot.
By reaching for that concept of “a kid’s favourite movie”, Lightyear opts for a world of path-of-least-resistance storytelling in which it refuses to take anything approaching a risk. In the first five minutes alone, the Toy Story dialogue comes exhaustingly thick and fast, while the movie is willing to take a dive into the lucky dip of nostalgia whenever it feels the need for a cheap reaction, akin to a rock star showering praise on the town in which they’re performing.
With all of that said, though, there’s a reason Pixar sits at the top of the animated movie mountain. They know how to make these films. When MacLane delivers the exhilarating flight sequences and pinging lasers of combat, his movie springs to life, enhanced by chunky animation which hopes to evoke the space operas of the past. Between this and Turning Red, it’s intriguing to see Pixar moving away from its house style in search of more inventive, distinct worlds. Michael Giacchino’s score adds real value to the action sequences, combining massive orchestral arrangements with choral singing to conjure epic scope.
There’s also plenty of joy to be found in the voice cast, with Sox an equal parts adorable and hilarious character very much in the mould of Disney’s best animal sidekicks. Taika Waititi is, as ever, a comedic highlight in a supporting role and the sparky banter between Evans and Aduba keeps the first act moving in terms of comedy and emotional weight.
But ultimately, this stands as very much a minor entry in Pixar’s enviable canon. It conjures impressive spectacle and will allow a new generation of fans – it’s easy to forget Toy Story is almost 30 years old – to fall in love with the undeniable cool of Buzz Lightyear, but there’s just something perfunctory about it all when the genius of Toy Story is only a click away on Disney+. Lightyear sadly might not have the capacity to fly to new heights for Pixar, but at least this character still knows how to fall with style.
Lightyear is released in UK cinemas on 17th June.
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