This Buzz Lightyear origin story doesn't soar to infinity and beyond, but it benefits from lively voice work and a scene-stealing robot cat.
June 16, 2022
In the realm of franchise filmmaking, "to infinity and beyond" isn't just a catchphrase exclaimed by an animated plaything — it's how far and long Hollywood hopes every hit big-screen saga will extend. With that in mind, has a Pixar movie ever felt as inevitable as Lightyear? Given the main Toy Story plot wrapped up in 2019's Toy Story 4, and did so charmingly, keeping this series going by jumping backwards was always bound to happen. So it is that space ranger figurine Buzz Lightyear gets an origin story. That said, the trinket's history is covered immediately and quickly in this film's opening splash of text on-screen. Back in the OG Toy Story, Andy was excited to receive a new Buzz Lightyear action figure because — as this feature tells us — he'd just seen and loved a sci-fi movie featuring fictional character Buzz Lightyear. In this franchise's world, Lightyear is that picture.
It's hard not to see Lightyear as a new cash cow — the Toy Story series' cash calf, perhaps. It's also difficult not to notice that the Disney-owned Pixar has made a movie that renders a famed character a piece of film-promoting merchandise, all while also releasing a new range of Lightyear-promoting merch so that IRL kids can have their own Buzz Lightyear toy again, too. In 2049, will audiences be watching a flick about someone who saw this as a child, nagged their parents for a Buzz and developed their own love of animation, space, franchises or all of the above? It wouldn't be surprising. Of course, there's form for making Buzz a movie tie-in toy; the overarching series' other main figure, pull-string cowboy Woody, stemmed from a fictional western TV show called Woody's Roundup. Maybe that's what Pixar will now make next.
Or, perhaps it'll release a film or show based on one of Lightyear's new characters, feline robot companion SOX. Yes, you can now buy toy versions of it in reality as well, because of course you can. Buzz Lightyear and a cute cat that talks? The head of Disney merchandising must've seen potential piles of cash stacked to infinity and beyond purely at the thought of it, and director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) along with him. Thankfully, as calculated as Lightyear's existence clearly is — and it's as blatantly engineered by bean counters as any movie can be — it's still likeable enough. It only slightly feels like a flick that might've actually come out around 1995, though, even if Apollo 13 sat second at the global box office that year (behind Toy Story, fittingly). And, after sending the wonderful Soul and Turning Red straight to streaming during the pandemic, plus Luca, it's also a standard pick for Pixar's return to the big screen.
Buzz the live-action film hero — flesh and blood to in-franchise viewers like Andy, that is, but animated to us — also goes on an all-too-familiar journey in Lightyear. Voiced by Chris Evans (Knives Out) to distinguish the movie Buzz from toy Buzz (where he's voiced by Last Man Standing's Tim Allen), the Star Command space ranger is so convinced that he's the biggest hero there is, and him alone, that teamwork isn't anywhere near his strength. Then, as happens to the figurine version in Toy Story, that illusion gets a reality check. To survive being marooned on T'Kani Prime, a planet 4.2 million light-years from earth filled with attacking vines and giant flying insects, the egotistical and stubborn Buzz needs to learn to play nice with others. For someone who hates rookies, as well as using autopilot, realising he can only succeed with help takes time.
Time is a slippery concept for Buzz, however, courtesy of his new predicament. To zoom back home, the Star Command mission team must make the right fuel, and test it — and on each attempt, as Buzz zips into hyper-speed in scenes reminiscent of Top Gun: Maverick, time dilates. His flights pass in minutes, but four years go by for his crew while he's in the air. Still, he keeps soaring and trying, and his best friend Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Mrs America) keeps greeting him upon his return. But her life continues, including marrying the girlfriend she falls for among their colleagues, and having a family. She gets older, too. In contrast, Buzz barely ages, or moves on, until he's also trying to fight an alien spaceship piloted by giant robot Zurg (James Brolin, Sisters) with Alisha's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer, Hustlers), plus her fellow junior rangers Mo (Taika Waititi, Our Flag Means Death) and Darby (Dale Soules, Orange Is the New Black).
There's a lot that's average about Lightyear, including the pieces it cobbles together from Top Gun and Star Wars, and everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Starship Troopers, Gravity and Interstellar to Pixar's own Wall-E and Up. There are meta twists that make zero sense in the broader Toy Story narrative, too. There's also a jettisoning of early 2000s TV series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and its take on Buzz's backstory, and a lingering question: what if Andy had just loved a different movie and wanted a different toy for his birthday instead? And, there's a toy chest filled with Pixar's usual go-to themes, including not being afraid to make mistakes. Obviously, in that same vein — and because the animation studio is owned by the same entity behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, two forever-sprawling sagas — there's room left for a sequel.
Great voice casting makes an impact, luckily. While it can't push Lightyear past its limits as an inessential Toy Story spinoff that doesn't add anything crucial to the series, there's liveliness, emotion and plenty of heart in the film's engaging vocal work. Evans doesn't try to shake Buzz's rampant sense of self-importance, but to unpack it, and finds tenderness and vulnerability in the process. And, he gives the character texture even amid such slick and gleaming animation. Aduba and Palmer also shine in their supporting parts, while Waititi perfects his comedic sidekick gig. Peter Sohn — director of The Good Dinosaur, and also a regular-enough Pixar voice actor — goes one better with SOX, however. Friendly, funny, adorable, and able solve scientific problems while meowing and cough up handy tools alike, that robo-cat is a scene-stealer. Still, finding him entertaining and thinking he could fuel an entire future film himself aren't the same thing, although, as Lightyear shows, no one learned that lesson about Buzz.