Though it doesn’t break any new cinematic ground or blow any movie-going minds, Disney/Pixar’s latest animated adventure, Lightyear, is a fitting “origin story” for one of its most beloved characters.
Before the sci-fi epic even gets off the ground, it’s clear it has a major obstacle to overcome: How can Buzz Lightyear–a toy–have a genuine back story? An excellent question that the film’s creators waste precious little time answering. What they’ve come up with is such a straightforward solution that you can’t help but tip your hat to co-writers Jason Headley and Angus MacLane for their ingenuity. It also neatly solves the continuity conundrum of Buzz being voiced not by Tim Allen, but by Chris Evans. Again, kudos to the filmmakers.
When we first meet the new (or is it the original) version of our favourite Space Ranger, he’s on a mission to explore the galaxy alongside fellow recruits Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and rookie Featheringhamsten (Bill Hader). After an unsuccessful reconnaissance mission, Buzz makes an error of judgement that strands the entire ship’s crew on the hostile planet. Their only hope of returning home is to rebuild their ship and find a way to achieve hyperspeed via crystal fusion. You know, that old chestnut. Determined to rectify his mistake, Buzz volunteers to pilot the test flights but time goes a bit wibbly-wobbly once he’s launched into space. A mission that seems to last mere minutes for him actually lasts years for those living planet side. As Alicia and others come to terms with their situation, they begin to live their lives as they would back home–marrying, having families, progressing in their careers–Buzz remains focussed on his mission, going up time and time again and piling on the missing years.
Alicia, in particular, thrives in the time Buzz is gone. She meets a wonderful woman, falls in love, marries, has a child, and becomes Commander of the Rangers–all while supporting Buzz and his need to see the tests through. She even provides him with an emotional support pet robot named Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), a loyal feline who steals every single scene he’s in.
Though the community gradually seems to forget about Buzz and what he’s trying to achieve, he becomes a legend to others. Particularly to Alicia’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer). When their newly created civilization comes under fire from the evil Emperor Zorg (James Brolin), Izzy, now an army trainee, recruits a confused Buzz to her plan to save the day. Through Izzy we meet enthusiastic but inept rookies Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steele (Dale Soules). Morrison signed up for the program on a lark and Steele is only there because of her parole release program. But together they’re the only thing standing between Zurg and victory. Buzz, never a fan of rookies or teamwork, has to learn to adjust quickly or face defeat–both in the face of the enemy and in his original mission.
With all the hallmarks of a true bombastic sci-fi space thriller, Lightyear also manages to dig deeper in the quieter moments. Buzz’s mantle of duty weighs heavily on him and his determination to finish the mission serves only to isolate him further. The film doesn’t shy away from moments of vulnerability for our hero, nor from pointedly dealing with his more negative emotions. He’s a modern spaceman–one who’s not afraid to shed a tear or two when he’s not doggedly pursuing his redemption. He’s courteous and respectful to all, with the exception of rookies and the ship’s auto-pilot, relatively non-plussed by the twists and turns his life has taken, and willing to change when a new outlook is called for. He’s recognizable as the Buzz we know, but different enough that getting to know him doesn’t feel like re-treading over familiar territory.
Though the plot is relatively simple as sci-fi stories go, it’s the film’s supporting characters that elevate Lightyear to something more than a paint-by-numbers origin story. Morrison and Steele are both incredibly charming and likeable, thanks to stellar voice work from Waititi and Soules and Sox is everything you want out of a cat robot companion: adorable, funny and poignant in turn. But it’s Alicia and her granddaughter Izzy who give the movie its heart. They both have a deep connection to Buzz and support and understand him as no one else does. But they also know when to step in and deflate the Space Ranger’s ego or self-flagellation with a well-placed dig or one-liner. But what makes the two Hawthorne women great is the fact they’re capable and strong black women who would get along fine without him. In fact, if Disney and Pixar are looking for ideas, there’s a great deal of potential in recounting the events of Lightyear from Alicia’s point of view.
That Lightyear seems decidedly more diverse is no accident. In a recent press conference about the film, director MacLane cited the sci-fi classics like Star Trek as often being more representative of the population as a whole and that he wanted Disney/Pixar’s latest feature to fit within that tradition. That one of Lightyear’s lead characters is queer is important–though more important is that it is presented without comment. It’s not a major plot point, it just is. Disney may have a long way to go in terms of representation, Lightyear seems a baby step in the right direction.
While the story itself lands just fine, neither truly impressing nor disappointing, the film’s visuals are sufficiently out of this world–unsurprising given the massive and talented animation teams behind them. Add that to another effective score from Michael Giacchino and Lightyear manages to up the ante on the mise-en-scène front, even if the rest lags somewhat behind.
Lightyear may not rank among Disney/Pixar’s very best (Up, Inside Out, and Soul), but it has more than enough going for it. Whether it’s the excellent performances or eye-catching visuals, Buzz’s entertaining origin story is sure to satisfy an eager movie-going audience looking for a reason to return to the theatre this summer.
Disney and Pixar’s Lightyear opens in theatres on June 17.