Following Disney Investor Day in December 2020, all fans wanted to talk about was the surge of Marvel and Star Wars announcements. While fresh looks at The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki as well as title cards for Ahsoka and Lando left audiences with enough to speculate on for months, the House of Mouse had plenty of reveals that went beyond the world of superheroes and the galaxy far, far away. There was official confirmation on the Percy Jackson reboot, a surplus of National Geographic originals, and even a spin-off from the critically-acclaimed Toy Story film franchise centered around Buzz Lightyear.
The aforementioned space ranger project came with a twist: this Lightyear film would not be about Tim Allen's famous action figure, but rather "the hero who inspired the toy." Even without any of the iconic Toy Story voice cast returning, Lightyear immediately got on audiences' radar when, on the same day that the film was announced, Captain America star Chris Evans would be taking on the lead character.
18 months after it was announced, Lightyear has landed on Earth.
Lightyear: An Ideal Legacy Spin-Off
In a summer movie season filled with returns to famous film franchises, Lightyear not only holds its own, but certifies itself as the family-friendly adventure that audiences have been waiting for. It does not shatter any glass ceilings, but Lightyear meets that Pixar gold standard that the animation giant has re-established for decades.
Much of that is due to the vocal talent on board, captained by one of Earth's mightiest A-Listers. Beyond the charisma coming from the audio booth, Lightyear's story, cinematography, and overall vibe will leave fans smiling.
With many movies running at well over two hours these days, Lightyear clocks in at a refreshing 105 minutes, but moves even quicker than that. Lightyear hits the ground running from the opening scene and doesn't look back until the credits roll.
Even as it races along, the film's pacing keeps up for its full runtime. There is some of that famous Pixar complexity woven into the narrative, but its explanation is accessible enough for audiences to understand in real-time, rather than piecing it together after key scenes have already passed.
That narrative's specifics are inexplicable without getting into spoiler territory, but know that the premise of Buzz's other-worldly adventure is just the surface story.
Aside from their thought-provoking themes, Pixar films have an irreplicable energy to them that Lightyear very much captures. Many elements go into that secret formula, but most of it can be boiled down to lively pacing and witty dialogue.
The reason Lightyear is able to achieve that accessible acceleration is due to its impressive writing. Director Angus MacLane and co-screenwriter Jason Headley deliver a script that audiences will be mesmerized by. Remember that one-shot conversation between Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy in Avengers: Infinity War?
Strange: Wait, what, Thanos? All right, let me ask you this one time. What master do you serve?
Star-Lord: What master do I serve? What am I supposed to say? Jesus?
Tony: You’re from Earth?
Star-Lord: I’m not from Earth. I’m from Missouri.
Tony: Yeah, that’s on Earth dip-s--t. What are you hassling us for?
That essence and vibe from this Infinity War scene is in numerous Lightyear moments. While MacLane and Headley's writing needed to reach a level of cleverness to make that possible, the script was only half the battle.
Evans Captains a Mighty Cast
Lightyear's cast is not as deep as some animated ensembles, but its four pillars are more than enough to take this film to infinity and beyond.
MacLane has professed that Evans was MacLane's "first and only choice" to voice the lead character, and for good reason. The Knives Out star continues the legacy of Buzz Lightyear by making it his own. Lightyear's Buzz has a similar cadence to the action figure from Toy Story, but is unique enough to feel like its own character in a new story.
Being in a leadership position is nothing new for Evans, but fortunately for the former Marvel actor, this role does feel different from Captain America. Sure, there are a few notable parallels, but Buzz is much less of a team player than Steve Rogers. His heroism is never in question, but he does lean hard on some of his selfish attributes. He's charming and charismatic, but also a lone wolf. He's friendly and fatherly, but also inexorable.
Despite the character's insistence on being a solo act, he gets a big boost from his supporting staff. Keke Palmer kicks off her big summer movie season as Izzy Hawthorne, the female lead of Lightyear, and bounces off of Evans effortlessly. As mentioned, Pixar pacing is achieved through a strong script and a quality cast, but that all falls apart if the actors have no chemistry. Despite not meeting in person until the Lightyear premiere, Evans and Palmer gel together as if they've been sharing the screen for decades.
Along with Evans and Palmer is Marvel regular Taika Waititi, who brings that famous New Zealand charm to his role of Mo Morrison. Waititi's Lightyear performance is not unlike any other roles he's brought to life, but his vibe is a welcome addition to this cast.
The Latest Animated Obsession
That fourth pillar deserves its own subsection. Film is subjective, but it's all but a guarantee that audiences will be unequivocally obsessed with Buzz's sidekick.
Sox, Peter Sohn's cybernetic cat, is the textbook definition of scene-stealer. If Buzz and Izzy are in charge of the lyrics, Sox delivers the ad-libs that take Lightyear to the next level. Just like Bing Bong (Upside Down) and Frozone (The Incredibles) before him, Sox is the latest side character that will bring out audiences' every emotion.
Just about every one of Sox's quips lands, with most being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. That humor builds a subconscious care for the character as well, which only emphasizes what's at stake throughout the film.
Animation Built for the Big Screen
With Pixar becoming more open to Disney+ drops, it's evident that Lightyear was built for the big screen. Cinematography in animation will never leave fans as breathless as a scraping shot of a live-action location, but Lightyear has enough impressive frames to warrant that theatrical experience.
How it Compares to the Toy Story Franchise
Lightyear finds itself with one of the better problems to have in Hollywood: it's linked to a universally-praised franchise. The original Toy Story trilogy is one of Pixar's crown jewels, and its fun fourth installment a couple of years ago only added to the prestige.
This Chris Evans-led spin-off is right about on par with 2019's Toy Story 4. It has every possibility to get better with age, but for now the iconic originals are a step above. Much of that is due to those movies' extremely engaging plots. Lightyear has a fun story, but it does lack that bigger picture allegory that the first three Toy Story installments brought to life.
Regardless of where it ranks among the franchise, it does add a fun layer to the previous films upon a rewatch.
All that, plus three post credits scenes to keep fans eagerly anticipating the future, make Lightyear a strong installment in Pixar's critically-acclaimed catalog. It's not a perfect movie, but it proves scene after scene that Buzz Lightyear's origin story is a story worth telling.
Lightyear hits theaters this Friday, June 17.