Pixar’s Lifeless Return to Theaters Is a Great Excuse to Stay Home

“Lightyear” is the first movie that Pixar has released in theaters since the start of the pandemic, a return to normal that would feel more exciting if “Lightyear” wasn’t also the first Pixar movie since the start of the pandemic that feels like it only belongs on Disney Plus. Bursting onto the big screen with huge “this project was announced during a shareholders meeting” energy, “Lightyear” is exactly the kind of gratuitous property-mining that corporate streamers were invented to support.

That would still be true if this unexciting “Toy Story” spinoff had been able to match the creative highs of recent Pixar features like “Luca” and “Turning Red,” but — a sad product of its time. Much like the square-jawed Space Ranger who lends this glorified DLC of a film his name, “Lightyear” remains firmly stuck in the past even as it hurtles toward the future. And while screenwriters Jason Headley and Angus MacLane need that push-pull in order to tell a story about reconciling the lure of nostalgia with the potential for something new, it’s hard for a movie to sell us on living in the moment when every scene feels like it’s settling for less.

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OK, OK, I know that’s an insufferably pretentious way to open a review of a cartoon aimed at little kids (one little kid in particular), but the most glaring problem with “Lightyear” is that it misses its hyper-specific target audience. Pitched and directed by Pixar vet MacLane (who previously helmed the under-appreciated “Finding Dory”), the film starts with a premise that’s a lot of fun in a “this would probably have worked better as a 15-minute short” sort of way: In “Toy Story,” Andy became obsessed with his Buzz Lightyear action figure after seeing the character in some big Hollywood action movie — “Lightyear” is that movie.

And while I can only hope that millions of six-year-olds are about to prove me very wrong on this point, I’m struggling to believe that any child’s imagination could be set on fire by this awkward space odyssey with its bland locations, dull sidekicks, and deeply uncool villain. Sure, Andy first saw it in 1995, before his brain had been smoothed over by Marvel, “Paw Patrol,” or even “The Phantom Menace,” but the idea that he would drop all of his other toys for an intergalactic dork like Buzz Lightyear has never made less sense than it does here.

It should be illegal to put critics in any situation where they have to write that Chris Evans is a downgrade from Tim Allen, and yet the undaunted Buzz who the “Not Another Teen Movie” star voices here is infinitely less fun or interesting than the delusional, plastic version of the character who helped make Pixar what it is today. We meet him in the middle of his latest voyage, a bit rounder and more lifelike than he was as a toy, but no less arrogant.

After unilaterally diverting his turnip-looking spaceship (and all 1,000 of the scientists on board) to an unknown planet some 4.2 million light-years away from Earth, Buzz sets foot on alien soil in search of precious resources. He’s probably done this kind of thing before, though it’s safe to assume he was probably just as cocksure and entitled when he was a rookie; we can’t say for sure, as “Lightyear” jettisons anything that might lend broader context to Buzz’s mission, to the point that I’ve started to think of “Lightyear” as a sequel to several other movies that Pixar hasn’t made yet (presumably including one about the actor who plays Buzz in the “Lightyear” franchise). Anyway, Buzz tears off into the nuclear orange environs of T’Kani Prime, unconcerned with the safety of his trusty commander Alisa Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) or the intern who’s come with her.

The team naturally decides to get out of Dodge after discovering that T’Kani Prime is riddled with sentient vines that keep trying to drag people under the surface — a solid recurring gag in a movie that outsources most of its laughs to a robot cat — but Buzz isn’t quite the pilot he thinks he is, and he ends up grounding his massive crew on a hostile planet with no means of getting their ship back into orbit. His only hope? Using one of the new hyperspeed crystals that his scientists have invented. His only problem? The crystals always fall just short, and every time-dilating test flight Buzz takes around the nearest star finds him landing on a planet where everyone is four years older than they were when he took off.

Credit where it’s due: MacLane wickedly positions himself for a montage that takes the first 10 minutes of “Up” and multiplies its sadness (or at least its body count) by 1,000 percent. But just when Buzz’s obsessive quest to undo his big mistake and “finish the mission” seems like it might continue ad infinitum and beyond, one of his test flights ends with the discovery that a robot army has invaded T’Kani Prime, the human population has sealed itself in a giant shield bubble, and it’s up to Buzz and some kooky trainees to save the day.

There’s something resonant — or at least there should be — to the meta-fictional idea of partnering Buzz with the descendants of the people who first loved him, but “Lightyear” mines precious little emotion from pairing its hero with Alisha’s plucky granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer). De facto leader of the Junior Zap Patrol, Izzy has all of Buzz’s eagerness but none of his expertise. She’s a natural enough foil for the legendary Space Ranger (even before her secret fears are exposed), but she and Buzz are both so motivated by saving the day that neither of them really inspire the other to reflect on what that means.

Their surface-level dynamic speaks to the flat emotionality of a movie that’s obsessed with mistakes but unwilling to take chances, and that disconnect only grows more tiresome as it trickles down through the rest of the supporting cast. Successfully building a story around a character as one-dimensional as Buzz would require the most fun and memorable team of sidekicks that Pixar has ever devised, but the motley crew we meet here falls well short of that height.

First up is Taika Waititi as clumsy space cadet Mo Morrison; if his elastic voice is a perfect fit for a kids film like this, his role is too dependent on cheap slapstick to sustain any real interest (anyone old enough to remember seeing “Toy Story” in theaters might pine for a time when Pixar’s bit players weren’t so exhaustingly joke-oriented). Voiced by “Orange Is the New Black” alum Dale Soules, the gruff and diminutive Darby Steel is even less fun despite a vibe that I can only describe as “Vasquez from ‘Aliens’ if she became a soldier due to post-retirement boredom.” Antic, repetitive scenes of Buzz hacking away at killer robots while trying to keep the Junior Zap Patrol alive tend to feel like filler episodes from the inevitable Pixar equivalent of “The Book of Boba Fett,” and “Lightyear” doesn’t do itself any favors by going a bit galaxy-brain when its big bad shows up in the third act. At least relocating the action away from the barren sands of T’Kani Prime allows MacLane to take better advantage of his film’s cutting-edge animation, which effectively splits the difference between a “real” sci-fi serial and the action figures it may have inspired.

Fittingly, however, it’s the older tech that supplies “Lightyear” with most of its charm, as the robotic helper cat Buzz receives after his first test flight turns out to be his most valuable companion — and his movie’s greatest asset — when the story picks up several decades later. Voiced to sweetly affectless perfection by “The Good Dinosaur” director Peter Sohn, Sox may be a non-sentient android whose head spins in a full circle whenever he’s processing a command, but he’s also the only new character who exudes the self-possessed comic brio that’s allowed so many Pixar favorites to transcend their plot utility and/or pandering cuteness. On that front, he’s the sharpest role player the studio has come up with since Forky (all hail Forky!), and whenever Sox isn’t on screen, you might just find yourself asking, “Where’s Sox?”

That’s largely because “Lightyear” doesn’t really pose any other pressing questions. Scaled like an origin story (in a way that clashes against its name-brand expectations and IMAX-sized aspect ratio) and hemmed within its small handful of locations, this is the rare Pixar film that should’ve aimed so much bigger than it does. There’s no excuse for a Buzz Lightyear spinoff not to reach for the stars, and the decision to have its story fall back on the upside of failure — the real mission is the friends we made along the way! — doesn’t explain why this movie settles for so little success.

“Finish the mission” may be a flawed mantra, but it loses all of its punch in a film whose purpose is so uncertain from the start. The pandemic has certainly played a part in the company’s strategy, but if Disney continues to pump retrograde franchise spinoffs into theaters while forcing people to watch the likes of “Luca” and “Turning Red” on TV, it won’t be long until fans settle in on T’Kani Prime and lose interest in leaving home. Yesterday it was “to infinity and beyond!” Tomorrow it might be “no further than the couch.”

Grade: C

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Lightyear” in theaters on Friday, June 17.

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