source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Lightyear brings Pixar back to theaters for the first time since Onward (a little pandemic happened in the meantime), and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the studio’s test case. It’s a return to the beloved Toy Story series, a stalwart both critically and commercially for the studio, and the only thing it must overcome is a slightly novel approach. This movie isn’t about Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s toys. Instead, it’s the space ranger movie that launched a million Buzz toys.

If you think about that setup for a second, it becomes even more of a bizarre thing to attempt. In world, Buzz was the hottest toy of 1995, meaning the movie must’ve been so spectacular that it set off a frenzy that Frankensteined together the reaction to the original Toy Story with the madness of Tickle Me Elmo buying sprees. To create that kind of pop culture response, Lightyear has to be a pretty special movie, so no pressure.

Then Disney piled it on by having it released in theaters, building up a bit of ill will considering its recent slate of original, minority-focused films (Luca has multiple queer readings) were shuffled off to Disney+. It would be natural to think these were setting a precedent for all Pixar films, but no, a good old arrogant white guy who thinks he can save everyone gets the chance to rake in the big bucks.

All these expectations make what Lightyear ends up being a bit surprising, not because it overachieves or is the reference heavy, unimaginative cash grab it could’ve been. It’s surprising that it ends up somewhere in the middle, opening with some iconic lines and settling into a story that bucks the trend of recent family film morality.

Lightyear, essentially, is about the titular space ranger (now voiced by Chris Evans) learning that his wants and needs aren’t the most important thing in the universe, a sharp right turn from the ‘be yourself’ messaging most movies peddle to kids these days. Both lessons are worthwhile, but the balancing the two is a more realistic setup for how the world works.

The movie gets there by giving Buzz have a self-important streak he must learn to see around, the oddity being that toy Buzz in the first film acts as if he didn’t retain the journey Lightyear took him on.

He’s got another ragtag group helping him see the world as it really is again, with all of Andy’s toys replaced with a group of space rangers in training, the only other people outside Zurg’s siege of their base. Their community is stranded because Buzz crashed their ship decades ago, and he’s been taking 4-year test flights (during which time he ages only a few minutes) to find their way home. That’s left him untethered from their daily life, and while he’s worked doggedly to fix his mistake everyone else has built a thriving community that they’re pretty happy with. Therein lies the central issue: Buzz wants one thing while everyone else wants another, so no matter how skilled or brave he is, he’s not really doing much good.

It’s a refreshing switch-up, and frankly, an unexpected take on a character that seems heroic in every sense of the word. To question that heroism, or more specifically to question whether that heroism is always helpful, slots well within the larger Toy Story themes of aging and knowing your place within a shifting world.

Along the way Lightyear takes you on some exciting missions, nothing that’ll be too scary for young ones but ones that definitely lean into the action a space ranger story promises. In true Pixar fashion, though, it’s the side characters that steal the show, with the ragtag group following Buzz around being a winning foil to his overconfidence.

There’s Keke Palmer voicing the young, eager Izzy, the de facto leader until Buzz showed up and, as the granddaughter of his old partner, his best chance at forming an emotional connection to the world that’s passed him by. Taika Waititi’s Mo and Dale Soules’ Darby form a comedic odd couple, but the one destined to claim hearts (and lots of merchandising money) is Peter Sohn’s robotic cat Sox.

Full disclosure: I adore cats. I’m always game for cat humor, and while Sox flips between his feline and robo sides for great jokes and purpose, the cat content comes at a steady pace, including one guffaw-inducing take on a hairball.

That Sox comes from Buzz’s naturally integrated queer ranger partner is the icing on the cake of this perfect side character, and it embodies what Lightyear does best. It doesn’t try to go to infinity and beyond. Instead, it tells a simple story well and without a lot of fuss. Would this movie inspire the kind of passionate response that filled an entire toy aisle with Buzz Lightyears like we saw in Toy Story 2? No. Will it keep the family entertained and maybe cause a few requests for a robot cat? Yes.

Good enough.

Release: in theaters June 17th
Director: Angus MacLane
Writers: Angus MacLane, Jason Headley
Cast: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Peter Sohn, and Uzo Aduba

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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