I try not to read film reviews before writing my own. But with Disney’s “Lightyear,” I happened to see a Harrisburg Patriot-News headline that said the movie “Goes to Adequacy — but Not Beyond.”
This is the kind of line that makes a critic moan, “I wish I’d written that!” —more so because, in this case, it sums up exactly how I felt about the film:
Good, not great.
In a movie that was supposed to kick off a new franchise but seems to be struggling at the box office, “Lightyear” does not exactly provide “backstory” on the popular animated astronaut; rather, as the film’s introduction states, the new Disney-Pixar product purports to be the movie that inspired Andy to acquire his space-ranger action-figure in the first “Toy Story.” (Hard to believe that movie is now 27 years old!)
This may explain why Tim Allen — who voiced Buzz in all four “Toy Story” films — was replaced by the Avengers’ Chris Evans in this new iteration: Here is the “real” Buzz, rather than a somewhat simpler-minded plastic toy who is so annoyingly optimistic and self-confident.
Indeed, that is one key difference between the “Toy Story” movies and this spin-off. The famed space-ranger in “Lightyear” is a man who not only makes mistakes but also one who must embrace his failures — rather than blissfully and buzzily ignoring them.
The other more crucial difference: “Lightyear” isn’t nearly so funny, so clever, so deliriously joyful and entertaining as its forbearers. Families expecting another madcap installment with their favorite toys will find a very different sort of film here.
“Lightyear” comes across largely as an action film, with a series of fast-paced set pieces involving Buzz’s attempts to get his fallen spaceship and crew off a hostile planet after he caused a crash-landing.
Which is not to say that the new movie overlooks emotion or theme. As indicated above, the story is very much built on Buzz learning to accept a less-than-ideal existence. Its late-film twist, with our hero, finally rejecting his own hopes and dreams, really hits this in a powerful way. “Lightyear” also forces Buzz to humble himself in accepting help from the ragtag cohort, which he initially snubs as too young and inexperienced.
At the same time, “Lightyear” is the first Disney film to incorporate a major gay character — indeed, perhaps the second-most-important player in the tale: Buzz’s co-ranger Alisha Hawthorne, very nicely voiced by Uzo Aduba. There’s a marriage, a kiss, a 40th anniversary, and eventually kids and grandkids — all of which will elicit varying reactions from Webb Weekly’s wide range of readers. Personally, I felt Buzz’s initial response and the pregnancy both seemed like a narrative speedbump; others will welcome it as respectful of the world we live in.
Along with Evans and Aduba, the vocal work is similarly excellent — especially James Brolin, Taika Waititi, and Keke Palmer. Visuals and music are likewise top-notch. But by and large, “Lightyear” isn’t nearly as absorbing as most other Pixar’s; it sometimes tries too hard (especially with the robotic kitty) — and in many scenes, it feels too dark and chaotic for the very young viewers who loved “Toy Story.”
But then, those viewers aren’t really that young anymore.
And neither is Buzz.