Pixar makes use of tried, true formula
Familiar tropes used in 'Lightyear'
After two long years of having their premieres relegated to direct-to-Disney+ release, Pixar is finally back in theaters. While their latest effort Lightyear doesn’t match the quality of the outstanding trio of films (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) that were launched on the streaming service, it’s a fun and familiar spin-off that will reacquaint theatergoers with the studio’s magic.
Fans of Toy Story may be confused as to why Tim Allen, who voiced the toy Buzz Lightyear, hasn’t returned for this entry. The reason is that this new movie is meant to act as the movie that actually inspired the Buzz toy within this universe, a sort of “origin story” for the new action figure Andy got all those years ago. Admittedly, it’s a confusing and strained framing device, but once Lightyear takes off, it doesn’t matter much anyway.
Chris Evans voices this version of Buzz Lightyear, a headstrong Star Command Space Ranger whose job is to explore new planets across the galaxy. After one such expedition goes haywire, Buzz attempts to escape with his crew of 1,200 in tow but accidentally damages their ship in the process. Many years pass as Buzz completes trial runs with hyperspace fuel to get his stranded crew off the planet, but by the time he’s successful, they’ve developed a livable colony and most don’t want to leave. Buzz recruits a small group of outsiders, including Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi), and Darby (Dale Soules), to help him get the necessary materials to get the ship travel-ready again, but Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his invading robot army have other plans in mind.
Though Lightyear borrows liberally from sci-fi touchstones like Star Trek and Interstellar, the rhythm of its narrative follows the familiar structure of many animated adventure films, where obstacles crop up and our protagonists have to think up a way around them. Buzz wants to be a lone ranger, so to speak, but along the way, he’ll learn the value of companionship and teamwork.
Visually, the movie doesn’t always break new ground either. Buzz’s attempts to break into hyperspace will no doubt remind audiences of the Darkstar scene from the recently released Top Gun: Maverick. But there are some choices with chronology and story that do break the mold, like a montage of the time that flies away from Buzz during his hyperspace runs that echoes the “Married Life” sequence from Up.
There’s also a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethic to certain creative choices, too, like the inclusion of a robot “therapy cat” named Sox to help Buzz during his quest. The animated genre is saturated with animal friends that help human heroes in their journey, and while Sox isn’t entirely unique in its conception, the character completely works in this setting and practically scampers away with the whole movie. Voiced by Peter Sohn, who played Emile in Ratatouille and various smaller characters in other Pixar films, Sox has a humble and helpful timbre that seemed to channel Tom Hanks’ most genial and gentle work. Plenty of laughs are derived from the juxtaposition of Sox’s ability to make advanced calculations and hack into computer systems with his proclivities toward feline behavior, like wanting belly scratches and chasing laser beams.
Sequels and spinoffs are my least favorite sub-genre of Pixar movies, and while Lightyear certainly isn’t as banal as the Cars follow-ups or Monsters University, it’s not up to the level of the three Toy Story sequels, either.
The screenplay by Jason Headley and director Angus MacLane relies too heavily on action-adventure tropes, while having to rope in Toy Story lore and Pixar pathos along the way. Not every Pixar movie has to reach for the profundity of their most meaningful work, but their more escapist efforts should at least strive for a sort of cinematic equivalent. Perhaps it didn’t help that the theater in which I saw this film had pretty wimpy sound; the dialogue was audible, but the surround sound didn’t kick in for impact during the action scenes.
Despite the pedestrian story, I will likely give Lightyear another chance on my home theater system.
New movies coming this weekend
Playing only in theaters is The Black Phone, a supernatural horror movie starring Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames about a boy who is abducted by a serial killer and locked in a soundproof basement where he starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Also exclusively in theaters is Elvis, a music biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks which chronicles the life and career of legendary singer and actor Elvis Presley.
Streaming on Netflix is The Man From Toronto, an action comedy starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson where a case of mistaken identity intertwines a New Yorker and an assassin while the pair are staying at an Airbnb.