Pixar’s exhilarating, heartfelt Lightyear (★★★★☆) launches into orbit with strong and clear intent, offering viewers a succinct opening-credit orientation to this Toy Story spinoff. In the 1995 animated classic, young Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy, based on his favorite movie. “This is that movie,” we’re told, and we’re off to explore infinity and beyond with Space Ranger Lightyear of Star Command.
This isn’t the Buzz famously voiced by Tim Allen as an affably overconfident, some might say delusional, toy-come-to-life who believes he’s a real space ranger. This is movie hero Buzz, who’s no less confident, but is certainly smarter, and more chiseled and realistic in appearance (down to his eyebrows). And, in marked contrast to his Toy Story iteration, he’s remarkably humble.
Disney, of course, consulted their short list of Chris-es for the role, and chose the best one. Chris Evans, who brought similarly endearing qualities to playing Captain America for the MCU, leads an excellent voice cast that includes Keke Palmer and Taika Waititi as space cadets Izzy and Mo, unproven rangers who join Buzz’s crew.
Raspy-voiced Orange Is the New Black alum Dale Soules nails the energy and attitude of every sardonic one-liner playing ex-con crew member Darby, while OITNB Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba delivers warmth and authority as Star Command officer, and Buzz’s best friend, Alisha Hawthorne.
Hawthorne is commander of a ranger ship, piloted by Buzz and carrying scores of crew members, that becomes marooned light-years from Earth on a hostile planet. They’ll need to repair the ship’s hyperdrive in order to return home, and Buzz, feeling responsible for their predicament, dedicates himself to the task. When it’s time to risk life or death testing the new tech, Buzz volunteers to man the test flight.
A dazzling montage, set to Michael Giacchino’s stirring score, depicts Buzz’s cycle of hyperspeed tests. Blasting into space again and again, faster than the speed of light, Buzz ages only days, as years pass on the planet where Hawthorne and her crew mine, recycle, and reconstitute resources to build a home. During Buzz’s lightyears in space, Hawthorne raises a family with her wife.
Lightyear‘s version of the future makes room for all kinds of people, including queer people, which the film doesn’t make a big deal about, but does make integral to Hawthorne’s character. Bigots will just have to cope. Unlike the brief, easily excisable bits of LGBTQ representation sprinkled onto other films under the Disney umbrella, Hawthorne’s identity can’t be edited out of her story.
Yet it’s the friendship between her and Buzz that’s most compelling, and that really drives home the movie’s poignant point that while trying to redeem himself and save others’ lives, Buzz misses out on living a life of his own. Pixar proves again they have the right formula for combining earnest, heart-tugging emotion with briskly paced action.
Director Angus MacLane and co-writer Jason Headley, both veterans of several other Pixar features, develop a suspenseful plot around Buzz and his crew fighting off an invasion of robots led by their evil commander, Zurg (James Brolin).
Lit and photographed more like a moody, Ridley Scott-style space opera than a bright, bouncy cartoon, the film satisfies as action-packed sci-fi, and doesn’t slack on the comedy, either.
The filmmakers have both categories covered with SOX the cat, Buzz’s wily robot feline companion, superbly voiced by Peter Sohn as a much friendlier take on 2001‘s HAL 9000. SOX looks and sounds like a Teddy Ruxpin tabby, but with the capabilities of a super-computer.
That adorable artificial kitty will no doubt see his own spinoff someday, and surely return for the expected sequel. In film studios’ constant rush to remake, recycle, or reboot existing IP, franchise reinventions are inevitable. But it’s rare to see one produced with such depth, texture, and purpose as this trip up to and beyond the heavens.
Lightyear is Rated PG, and is playing in theaters everywhere. Visit www.fandango.com.