Lightyear ★★★★★

I love animation.

I don’t think that’s anything resembling a secret, but it’s true. In my opinion, animation is one of the single most powerful storytelling mediums ever created. It allows storytellers to create entire new worlds and characters completely from scratch, almost entirely unbound by the limitations of reality. However, the medium is often underestimated by those in positions of power at major studios; some even going so far as to mislabel it as a “genre.” Particularly in the West, animated films are often relegated to being family comedies and/or musicals without a lot of room for variation. That’s not to say these types of films are inherently bad, far from it. Disney’s most recent musical, Encanto, is one of the studio’s strongest films to date and Pixar’s earlier 2022 outing, Turning Red, worked fantastically well as a coming-of-age comedy. Still, one can’t help but feel that there’s some missed potential there. That there could be a groundbreaking story waiting to be told and that COULD be told if the powers-that-be allowed animation to go beyond its typical norms and tap into infinite possibilities. Thankfully, one of these kinds of animated movies does come out every so often and I am happy to report that Lightyear is very much one of them.

In the interest of fairness, I was always going to be a mark for a movie like this. I’m a huge science-fiction fan in general and specifically of films like Aliens and the original Star Wars; which director Angus MacLane has been open about being direct inspirations for Lightyear. I’ve also loved the Toy Story films and Buzz Lightyear specifically for pretty much my entire life (some of my first words were the outtakes from Toy Story 2); and I’ve always been fascinated by in-universe fiction as a storytelling and world building device. So yeah, a Star Wars/Aliens-inspired sci-fi action film starring Buzz Lightyear that’s meant to be the movie Andy saw as a kid that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy in the first place? Yeah, there’s little reason to believe I wouldn’t like this.

But believe me when I tell you that Lightyear really does feel like one of the most different and mold-breaking animated films in quite some time. Yes, it is still PG but it’s the rare PG that actually feels like it means something. Sure, there’s no swearing or blood or anything; but the action has real stakes. The characters get into real fights with real danger. They’re in the middle of what is effectively a war and you feel that. There are characters in this movie that actually DIE and it means something. Characters get to have real emotions and real relationships outside of blood family dynamics It’s really nice to see.

It’s not a musical, there’s not even any needle drops on the soundtrack despite what David Bowie’s presence in the trailer would have you believe. The film lets Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score due ALL of the work music-wise and I can’t remember the last time any major release that didn’t already have iconic instrumental themes like Star Wars or the Jurassic World movies really let that happen. And while it may have comedic moments, it’s not a comedy nor is it an over-the-top parody. There are definitely some deliberate callbacks to Toy Story (Most of them are thankfully contained to the first 10 minutes), but Lightyear wisely allows its story to stand completely on its own. This really is a legitimate sci-fi action blockbuster that just happens to star Buzz Lightyear. And it’s awesome.

The world of Lightyear is especially spectacular. The  background work and the way each physical area looks is simply breathtaking and all the different suits, weapons, and vehicles are cool as hell. Most of all, I love how everything feels so tactile and lived-in. The locations feel like real spaces you could walk around in and the aforementioned suits, weapons, and vehicles are all blessed with a wide array of detail. Everything has all these little buttons and knobs and levers and activation mechanisms that make them feel like something you could actually use. On another level, it helps add to the illusion of this being a live-action film within the Toy Story universe; as all of it feels it could be actual sets, props, and costumes that could have been physically constructed back in the 90s. (Perhaps setting the action predominantly on a single planet was also part of selling that illusion.)

The cast is filled with charming characters brought to life by some excellent voiceover performances. Taika Waititi and Dale Soules make for effective comic relief as a pair of Star Command cadets, Uzo Aduba has a small but impactful role as Buzz’s original partner, Alicia, Pixar veteran Peter Sohn makes for an instant fan-favorite as the robot cat, Sox, and while I can’t say much due to spoilers, James Brolin’s turn as Zurg really won me over and the twist with him is one I did not see coming; despite having seen it done in at least one other movie before this (Bonus points if you can guess the movie). I was also very impressed by Keke Palmer’s work as Izzy. She ends up carrying many of the film’s biggest emotional beats and she does so very effectively, which I can’t say I was expecting out of an actor whose last work I saw was a Nickelodeon sitcom over a decade ago. Very pleasantly surprised.

And of course, there’s Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear himself. Now, most of the “controversy” around this casting has been frankly very stupid. He was not chosen in place of Tim Allen because Tim Allen was “canceled by the woke mob” or whatever. It’s because Toy Buzz and Lightyear Buzz are two DIFFERENT CHARACTERS. And don’t get me started on the idiocy of that “castration” thing. But, regardless of how you feel about Tim Allen as a person (I think he’s kind of a dick), his performance as Buzz Lightyear is legendary and a lot to live up to. Thankfully, Chris Evans clearly understood the assignment and delivered a tremendous performance. Whether that be in comedy, action, or the heavier emotional moments, Evans perfectly captures the cadence and tone that made Allen’s Buzz iconic while making the character completely his own. Hell, a big part of what makes the throwback elements, particularly the first 10 minutes of “Hey, look it’s the shot and dialogue from Toy Story! Remember?”, significantly less eye roll-inducing than it could have been is simply how fun it is to hear Evans’ take on such iconic material. 

Of course, all of this would mean very little without a strong story behind it and Lightyear has one of those too. Without going too deep into spoilers, Lightyear is a unique take on time travel, space exploration, and alien invasion stories carried by themes of appreciating what little time we are given and the importance of understanding that you don’t have to go it alone. Is it as philosophically deep as some of Pixar’s other work? No, but it’s not trying to be nor does it need to be. Pixar is not your therapist. It’s not here to specifically work through your life issues, it’s here to tell a story. And it tells a great one indeed.

I do wish it was at least a little bit longer so we could’ve gotten more time and development for certain characters; and once the story wraps up, the film wastes no time in setting up the next potential adventure for these characters (Stay through the credits. ALL of them. Even the logos.); but beyond that, I don’t even really have nitpicks about Lightyear, let alone legitimate problems. It’s honestly that good. It’s a well-paced, visually stunning, action-packed, sci-fi adventure carried by charming characters, surprising twists, and powerhouse performances. It’s one of Pixar’s finest works, my second-favorite film of the year (Sorry, but nothing’s beating Everything Everywhere All At Once), and perhaps the single best blockbuster you’ll see this summer. Go beyond infinity and see it for yourself on the biggest screen you can (Really glad to see a Pixar movie in theaters again, by the way.)

P.S. To address the lesbian kiss/gay stuff, it’s definitely a step-up from typical Disney movie queer rep, but there’s still work to be done. The fact that the character in question is Buzz’s original partner, Alicia is really cool and they did actually have the guts to give her and her wife multiple scenes that are too important to the plot and character arcs to be removed for foreign markets; but while Alicia’s wife does get a name, Kiko, and the aforementioned multiple appearances, she does not get a line. I also enjoy that when Buzz finds out Alicia’s engaged, he immediately asks “Who is she?” rather than “Who is he?” followed by Alicia correcting him. It’s a small thing, but it’s nice. Work definitely still needs to be done in terms of LGBT representation and Disney’s feature departments certainly have a lot of catching up to do with Disney TVA on the subject; but progress is progress and it deserves to be acknowledged. And major kudos to the director and other creatives at Pixar who fought to restore it after Disney made them take it out.

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