Just like Buzz, Lightyear is impressive — but not subtle
Pixar has made us fall in love with action figures, cheer for insects, and sob uncontrollably over an imaginary friend. So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the animation studio's latest release is most effective when it's focused on an emotional-support robot kitten named Sox.
Specifically, Sox is an emotional-support kitty for Buzz, the space ranger at the center of Lightyear. The film begins with a title card that informs us that Toy Story's Buzz was merch sold in 1995 to promote "Andy's favorite movie. This is that movie." And let me tell you, if Lightyear had been released in 1995, it would have been everyone's favorite movie. The computer animation is stunning, at times so realistic it makes the groundbreaking Toy Story look like, well, child's play.
The Pixar team chose toys as the subjects of their first feature because they had not yet figured out how to make humans look realistic (a problem they've very clearly solved over the years). Yet Andy's room housed an entire community of complicated and nuanced plastic playthings — the exception being Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear, who had yet to accept he was a toy and not a space ranger on a singular mission: defeat Emperor Zurg. Allen's Buzz was a co-lead, but really a supporting character to Tom Hanks' Woody, a selfish and petulant cowboy doll whose complex relationship with being Andy's "favorite" was at the heart of a very human story.
In Lightyear, Buzz takes center stage. (Here he's voiced by Chris Evans, modulating his Captain America charm into a lower register to mirror Allen's delivery while making the character entirely his own.) After his large crew's ship is marooned on a strange planet, he takes it upon himself to play the hero — despite being the one to maroon them in the first place. When robots take over the planet, he begrudgingly works with a band of volunteer rangers to save the colony.
This Buzz isn't a toy, but he still has the singular goal of defeating Zurg. And he's going to do it alone, because this Buzz doesn't need anyone's help, as he reminds those around him (and the audience) approximately 746 times during the hour-and-45-minute movie. Director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) and his co-writer Jason Headley (Onward) surround their title character with quirky cohorts (voiced delightfully by Dale Soules, Taika Waititi, Keke Palmer, and more) — but Buzz doesn't bother learning most of their names, so neither do we.
The space ranger does grow a close connection with Sox, a doe-eyed companion clearly included to melt hearts and sell toys. Buzz's bond with this Swiss Army knife of a robot kitten (voiced by Peter Sohn) becomes the emotional center of the film. Sox one of the few things beyond the mission our hero comes to care about during our time with him. When the feline is in peril, or using one of his seemingly infinite (and beyond) skills to save the day, the film crackles with that Pixar magic we've come to expect over the past quarter century. The jokes may skew juvenile at times, but mostly in a Shrek way more than the worst of Saturday-morning cartoons.
Buzz's connection with Sox is rivaled solely by his bond with the only space ranger he considers his equal, Alisha (Uzo Aduba). Buzz and Alisha begin the film side by side, but — because of a timey-wimey plot twist that leads to some borderline canon-breaking that we won't spoil here — Alisha goes on to live a full life while Buzz doesn't age, physically or emotionally.
We, like Buzz, view his friend's milestones though vignettes akin to the universally praised opening of Up: Alisha meeting the love of her life, starting a family with her wife, becoming a grandmother, and celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary (the setting for that incredibly brief same-sex kiss at the center of so many headlines earlier this year). Thanks to Sox's telecommunication abilities, Buzz enjoys a final moment with his friend at a pivotal moment of the film. In the middle of what's essentially an action flick, it's a touching deep breath, one you wish had been replicated in tone a few more times throughout the story.
Kids will love Lightyear. Adults will enjoy it. The only reason it falls short of what we've come to expect from Pixar is that they've set their own bar so damn high. Grade: B
Chris Evans goes to infinity and beyond in this Pixar film about everyone's favorite Space Ranger.