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Buzz Lightyear origin story lacks magic of 'Toy Story' films

Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), left, and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) in “Lightyear.”

Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), left, and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) in “Lightyear.”

Published Jun 17, 2022

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Alan Zilberman

It has been 27 years since "Toy Story's" Andy first became enamoured with his Buzz Lightyear action figure, running around his bedroom shouting, “To infinity and beyond!” and inadvertently giving his Sheriff Woody toy an existential crisis.

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In Pixar’s sci-fi adventure spin-off "Lightyear", we're introduced to what originally captured Andy’s imagination: Andy’s favourite movie from the mid-1990s, featuring the titular astronaut. Put another way, we’re asked to view the film through Andy’s eyes.

If "Lightyear" were a more involving story, it might withstand that level of scrutiny. But meandering comic flourishes and an underdeveloped climax make it hard to suspend disbelief on multiple levels – ours as well as Andy’s.

In place of Tim Allen, who provided the voice of the Buzz Lightyear toy in the previous films, Chris Evans stars as the daring space ranger, recycling the bravado he brought to "Captain America: The First Avenger" (an ironic choice, given that this film also begins with Buzz failing).

After an expedition to a hostile planet, he unintentionally maroons his fellow explorers, so they have no choice but to set up a colony there. Determined to correct his mistake, Buzz tests the “hyperspeed” technology that will get the colonists back on course.

This leads to an unexpected wrinkle: Time passes more slowly on his test flights, so while he is gone for mere minutes, years pass for the colonists. He repeats the flights over and over, sacrificing a normal life for the greater good.

Director and co-writer Angus MacLane uses the gimmick of time travel to consider the limits of honour and duty. Buzz has no choice but to watch his best friend, Alisha (Uzo Aduba), live out her life, in snippets, while he is a young man.

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"Lightyear" takes its time to let Buzz grasp the full emotional weight of his sacrifice because, conveniently for him, a robot invasion led by Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) is the more immediate threat.

The film’s long middle section follows Buzz’s effort to reclaim his status as hero, as he leads Alisha’s adult grandchild Izzy (Keke Palmer) on a daring mission with other space-ranger misfits.

But instead of developing chemistry between Evans and the other voice actors, "Lightyear" relies on broad laughs that rob the characters of eccentricity. Taika Waititi, who seems to be everywhere these days, plays a hapless ranger who fixates on unimportant details, while Dale Soules plays a one-note ex-con with a penchant for explosives.

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The only character who makes much of an impression is Sox, a robot cat who steals every scene he’s in. (Fun fact: Peter Sohn, who delivers Sox's deadpan, un-precious performance, is actually a Pixar animator with only a handful of voice credits.)

This raises a question: Why didn’t Andy also have a Sox toy? It may seem beside the point, but it’s a rumination that helps clarify the film’s shortcomings: When the film’s climax sacrifices suspense in favour of poignancy, it’s demonstrating the kind of subtlety that would probably be lost on younger viewers like Andy.

What’s more, the character of Zurg isn’t all that much of a threat, as it turns out, and the big battle scene is ultimately a way to resolve a time paradox. Put another way, it's less "Star Wars" than "Star Trek".

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That being said, the special effects can be exhilarating, as when Izzy considers the vast void of space at a crucial moment. Though this is an animated film, producers have characterised "Lightyear" as a "live-action film within the 'Toy Story' universe" - meaning it's meant to be taken as live action from the point of view of animated human characters.

It’s a confusing distinction, regardless of how good computer effects have gotten since the 1990s.

Maybe "Lightyear" made an impression on Andy because the film takes friendship and diversity seriously? In terms of racial and sexual representation, the film is consistent with 2022 values that would have been borderline unrealistic 30 years ago.

If the film is aspirational, showing Andy what it means to be a dependable ally, then MacLane sacrifices pure entertainment for a loftier purpose.

A more straightforward clash between good and evil might have touched on the same themes, without sacrificing the action kids could mimic with toys.

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