Review: LIGHTYEAR, B-Level Storytelling Wrapped in A-Plus Animation

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: LIGHTYEAR, B-Level Storytelling Wrapped in A-Plus Animation

Lightyear, a pulpy, family-oriented science-fiction action epic, arrives in multiplexes at an inflection point for the Disney owned-and-operated Pixar Animation Studios.

Once synonymous with a unique blend of all-ages storytelling with cutting-edge, boundary pushing animation, Pixar, like every division and/or imprint under the Disney brand, has evolved (some might say de-evolved) into a virtual content farm, Pixar-branded IP (intellectual property), including, of course, sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and, most important of all for Disney’s coffers, unparalleled merchandizing opportunities.

As a meta-, in-film spin-off of the original, much-loved Toy Story series, Lightyear unsurprisingly reflects all of the above limitations, up to an including its status as a prime example in corporate decision-making (the more familiar, the better).

And yet, Lightyear is any better than a meta-, in-film spinoff has any right to be (in or out of the Disney owned-and-operated Pixar’s IP catalogue). At worst, it's a qualified triumph for Pixar’s collaborative storytelling team, limited by having to work backwards from a relatively sketchy origin story, and their uber-talented animators, delivering some of the strongest, deepest world-building, rousing action sequences/set-pieces, and, fully realized, dynamic on-screen characters in the Disney/Pixar canon. To borrow a cliche, Lightyear really is shedloads of fun for the whole family.

When we first meet the title character, Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans, admirably stepping for Tim Allen), a hotshot space pilot and Space Ranger, he’s helping to transport 1,200 colonists to a new, unpopulated planet and a fresh start for everyone involved. A computer alert, however, alerts a sleeping Buzz and his commanding officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), of a nearby planet that may or may not be habitable.

It’s Buzz’s call to investigate, becoming the first of several decisions that lead to a deep sense of regret for Buzz. Almost immediately, the planet’s overly aggressive flora convinces Buzz and Hawthorne to make an immediate retreat off-planet, taking the slumbering colonists with them. Buzz’s confidence bordering on arrogance, leads to the second, most consequential decision of Buzz’s life: His piloting skills fail him into the most inopportune time.

In short, broad strokes, Lightyear sets up Buzz’s internal/external conflict: Driven by a desire to undo the past and save the colonists, Buzz volunteers for a series of test shots in outer space that literally leave him unchanged, fixed and fixated in his obsessive quest to repair what he’s broken, while life on the colony planet jumps forward in four-year increments.

Buzz doesn’t age on his hyper light-speed jumps, but everyone else does. As Hawthorne ages, living as full a life as possible, Buzz doesn’t.

Eventually, Buzz finds himself back on a radically changed colony planet paired up with Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), a weekend warrior, Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), and an ex-con on parole, Darby Steel (Dale Soule), as they’re forced to confront an existential threat to the colony without backup.

Lightyear gives Buzz an easily identifiable, easily digestible character arc, complete with a few self-realizations and at least one self-actualization along the way, that suggests reconciling yourself to the past and past decisions is as, if not more, important than following your dreams and turning them into reality. It’s a bit more potent than expected, aimed at the adults (with or without children) watching Lightyear unfold across its nearly two-hour running time. 

That said, though, Lightyear certainly doesn’t get bogged down in extended therapy scenes as Buzz tries to work on and work out his issues. Instead, Lightyear weaves Buzz’s arc with the larger plot line involving Buzz’s continued absence and upon his last return, compelling him to adjust his expectations of himself and others to overcome an existential threat to the colony.

As almost always, Pixar didn’t make any cutbacks budget-wise, giving their animation team free rein to bring Lightyear to vividly virtual life. From the recognizable space suit to the distinctly realized, multi-ethnic supporting characters, and at least for some, world-building (e.g., multiple ships, facilities, and detailed sci-fi interiors), Lightyear truly excels.

Add to that rousing set pieces in outer space and on the colony planet (both obligatory, but also welcome), and the result, occasional derivative story elements aside, is a wholly engaging, entrancing, and ultimately enthralling journey for Buzz, Izzy, the others, and rapt audiences on the other side of the screen.

Lightyear opens in movie theaters Friday, June 17, via Walt Disney Pictures.


  • Angus MacLane
  • Angus MacLane
  • Matthew Aldrich
  • Jason Headley
  • Chris Evans
  • Keke Palmer
  • Peter Sohn
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Angus MacLaneChris EvansDale SoulesJames BrolinKeke PalmerLightyearPeter SohnTaika WaititiToy StoryUzo AdubaJason HeadleyJohn LasseterAnimationActionAdventure

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