LIGHTYEAR – Review
This weekend’s big new studio release is another bit of a Summer celebration (as if there aren’t lots of such warm weather happenings). Is it because it’s an animated feature? Sure, it’s the first big one of the season, but there are other, major reasons. Well, it is a prequel to a much-beloved nearly thirty-year-old franchise. Oh, but most importantly, it’s from the fine folks at Pixar. And why are they cheering down at their HQ in Emeryville, CA? If the main title had a “sub-heading” that followed a colon, that might state “Escape from Streaming”, maybe. At long long last, A Pixar flick is heading straight to the multiplexes, and not premiering on the Disney+ streaming app, after more than two years (ONWARD opened in early 2020 just before everything closed). And this is a big epic blockbuster that deserves the widescreen treatment since we’re headed to (say it with me) “infinity and beyond”. It’s the “pre-toy” saga of everybody’s favorite Space Ranger, the hero known as LIGHTYEAR.
Speaking of the “T” word, an opening title card informs us that this is the movie that young Andy saw before he got his new favorite plaything a year later, in 1995. The action begins as a huge interplanetary transport cruiser lands on a distant world, far from Earth. it is piloted by former Space Ranger ‘Buzz’ Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and his BFF Alicia Hawthorn (Uzo Aduba). And. wouldn’t ya’ know, it’s a very hostile planet with serpent-like vines grabbing at the duo (and an unlucky cadet), and the ground trying to swallow the entire ship. The trio barely makes it back to the cockpit, allowing Buzz to rocket them back into the cosmos…almost. A jutting mountain cliff damages the engine, forcing him to land on a vast mesa, high above the dangerous ground level. After much effort, Buzz and the ship’s crew believe that they have repaired and re-charged the crystal that powers the vessel. But just to make sure, Buzz will make a test run in a small jet-style explorer. All seems to go well until the crystal fails in his final approach to the return airstrip. Only minutes after he took off, Buzz is stunned to see that the crew is building a city. And Hawthorn is now the commander (and has a few grey streaks). She tells him that six years have passed while Buzz feels he’s been away for mere moments. He throws himself into preparing for another test run, as Hawthorn gifts him a robot cat named SOX (Peter Sohn). He begins a series of flights with the same result: he doesn’t age while Hawthorne starts a family. Eventually, she’s not there to greet him upon his return. Instead, her job has been filled by the “iron-fisted” Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who tells him that the tests are over. Ah, but SOX has solved the crystal problem, so Buzz steals a fighter, which leads to him meeting a ragtag trio of cadets on the surface and facing off against an army of aggressive robots and their black-cloaked master.
Well, let’s get this right out of the way…Buzz has a different voice with “Tim the Tool-Man” re-imagined as the “one true” (yup, my childhood hero) Captain America. But it’s not a huge leap as this Buzz is so different from the often delusional “action figure” in Andy’s room. And Evans is just perfect as a swaggering SF movie hero, who, honestly can also be a bit of a doofus. He says that his “self-narration” helps him focus, but it just adds to his child-like charm. But that’s not to take away from some of the big adult decisions Buzz must ponder in the story’s thoughtful, but still exciting finale. Aduba is a great “straight woman”, big sister, and a nurturing matriarch to him as Alicia. She’s in stark contrast to the energetic and often bombastic “next-in-line” Burnside given a snarling growl by Whitlock. They all take a backseat in the cockpit to the film’s big scene-stealer SOX whose mellow tones and “robo-talk” (bee-bop-boop) are courtesy of the gifted Sohn. Still, there’s lots of comedy to spare thanks to the wonderful trio of misfit space cadets who often baffle Buzz. Keke Palmer is sprightly upbeat and determined as Izzy, who offsets the often surly and grumbly Darby voiced by Dale Soules. The duo gives great support to the dim, “Inkpen-obsessed” Mo whose vocal stylings come from comedy “jack-of-all-trades” Taika Waititi. And I can let spill that the “big baddie”, Zorg (hey, he’s in the franchise’s “merch”) is given gravelly gravitas by James Brolin.
This could be considered a bit of a “direction change” from the Pixar artisans, as this plays almost like a straight adventure film, though a lot of humor is sprinkled throughout. Sure there are several nods to the TOY STORY films, but it earns its PG-13 rating with lots of suspenseful action set pieces and some truly scary alien “creepy-crawlies”. First-time director Angus MacLane (he co-directed FINDING DORY) wass up to the challenge of putting a “new spin” on a now-iconic movie character, as this version of Buzz had to look more like the “human” designs of Andy and his family rather than the “plastic-modeled” product we’ve seen since 95. And it had to be similar to the cinema of that year leaning more into STAR TREK (the features and TV shows) than STAR WARS (still a couple of years away from the prequel trilogy). It’s at first jarring to see Buzz out of his “purple swimming cap”, but it helps bring out his humanity. It also helps that the overall character designs are so appealing, especially the animation “acting” of Mo and the usually “exploding” Burnside. Ditto for the look of the film, from the “monster world’ to the different ships and spacesuits. Extra credit to MacLane for his work on the script with Matthew Aldrich and Jason Headley, which mixes the action melodramatics with a subtle affectionate satire. Sure, some will miss the old “play pals”, but most fans (even the older teens) will find lots to like in imaginative, inventive LIGHTYEAR. This “blast-off” is truly a blast.
3 Out of 4
LIGHTYEAR opens in theatres everywhere on June 17, 2022