Movie Review – “Lightyear” Puts a Congenial Pixar Sheen On a Tried-and-True Science Fiction Premise

We’ve all heard this story before– an astronaut travels through space at incredible speeds and returns to his starting point (usually planet Earth) having aged far less than those he left behind. It’s a spin on Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity– see also the infamous “Twin Paradox” thought experiment– that has been utilized in science fiction stories dating back to the 1950s and Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Time for the Stars.

And now the Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios has borrowed this age-old premise for its new feature Lightyear, also inspired by the character of Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story franchise– himself named after real-life astronaut Buzz Aldrin, best known as the second human being to ever walk on the moon.

If you think this all sounds overly heady for an animated family film, don’t worry– it’s a relatively (no pun intended) easy concept to grasp once it gets going, and writer/director Angus MacLane (co-director of Finding Dory) along with co-writer Jason Headley (Onward) walk their audience through it step by step. Lightyear begins with the titular “Space Ranger” Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Chris Evans of Captain America fame, following in the big-booted footsteps of Tim Allen, who played the character in toy form) botching a mission via his own hubris and stranding hundreds of starship passengers on a distant world. With the ship’s energy cell destroyed, Buzz becomes determined to discover a new form of hyperspace fuel using this planet’s natural resources through a series of high-velocity tests in orbit around its solar system (see where they’re going with this?).

With each test, more years pass by on the planet’s surface, while Lightyear only ages a few minutes. This phenomenon proceeds so significantly that Buzz misses out on most of the life of his Space-Ranger partner Alisha Hawthorne (Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba) and ends up befriending her granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer from The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder). Having lost his old acquaintances to time, Lightyear must learn to work with a new crew of recruits (voiced by comic-relief supporting players Taika Waititi and Dale Soules) to go up against the evil Emperor Zurg (Westworld and Traffic actor James Brolin), whose robot forces have invaded during Buzz’s most recent trip around the sun. Our hero is also accompanied by a predictably scene-stealing talking robot cat named Sox (Pixar mainstay Peter Sohn), who will likely win over even the most cynical viewers despite the implicit perception that the character was only included in an effort to sell merchandise.

Lightyear is first and foremost a visual feat– Pixar’s increasingly impressive strives toward near-photorealism had my eyes glued to the screen throughout. It’s also very funny, full of likable characters, and overflowing with in-jokes and allusions to both Toy Story movies of the past and the science fiction genre in general (there are nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and even Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure sprinkled here and there). The movie has an adventurous spirit that will capture the imagination of viewers of all ages, but parents may find some of the sci-fi ideas just a bit on the dark side for younger kids. Conversely, older audiences may be put off– like I was– by the vastly overused, and frankly a little trite, theme of embracing teamwork that permeates the DNA of the film. I would have hoped that the Pixar brain trust could come up with an overarching message more enlightening and thought-provoking than “it’s better to work within a group than to insist on doing everything yourself.”

That and a twist lifted from a different contemporary animated movie aside, Lightyear is pure entertainment from top to bottom. It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears (what a great, instantly memorable score from Up’s Michael Giacchino), and the funny bone featuring a wonderfully talented voice cast, expanding on the mythology of the Toy Story universe with a welcome lean toward a somewhat more mature tone. If this is indeed the movie that Andy saw in the mid-90s– as a title card up front informs us– I can completely understand why a kid of his age would desperately want a Buzz Lightyear action figure. Heck, I wouldn’t mind having one myself.

My grade: 3½ out of 5 inverse meat sandwiches.

Lightyear will be released into theaters nationwide this Friday, June 17.

Laughing Place recommends Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for the best film, food, and drink - all in one seat.
Mike Celestino
Mike serves as Laughing Place's lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly "Who's the Bossk?" Star Wars podcast. He's been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general all his life and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.