Updated: Aug 6, 2022
I bet many of us have grown up with Toy Story, haven't we?
Hailed as one of the pioneering films in recent years, it pushed open the envelope for a new platform of animation to take center stage: computer animation. And it did so through its experimental CGI, terrific writing, and an ensemble of engaging characters that were charming to us both as children and adults.
But that was only the beginning; Toy Story continued to push the envelope in more ways than one. Toy Stories 2-3 were hailed as textbook examples of how to craft a perfect sequel, while Toy Story 4, though still a good film, was dismissed by many as going beyond where Toy Story was meant to end.
Well, after all these years, one of the co-leads of Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear, got his own film. How does this film play out compared to the Toy Story flicks?
Very differently, for starters. It felt more like a regular space adventure film fit for characters like Buzz than a legitimate continuation or spinoff of anything remotely related to Toy Story.
Speaking of which, here's the story. It is about the rookie Space Ranger, Buzz Lightyear, navigating a new planet with some of his teammates, including Alisha Hawthorne, his best friend. Then, the team tried to fly out of the planet after barely escaping a swarm of hungry grass-like monsters. However, Buzz recklessly pushed the spaceship's energy sources past their limit, causing the ship to fracture on the edge of a cliff and crash-land stranded on the planet. Lightyear felt remorseful for his careless actions and swore to Alisha that he would've gone on several round trips throughout space, specifically around the sun, and back in his jet. He planned to test-drive his fuel supplies until he made the right one necessary to fuel their stranded spaceship and take them home.
However, because of the time-space mechanics involved with such massive, life-risking trips, Buzz discovered once he landed back on the planet from his first test that four years had passed since then. All his friends back on the planet aged except for him, who only aged by about no more than a few months. Unfortunately, after many ventures through space, his last one left him witnessing the passing of Alisha and the emergence of a new leader, Commander Burnside. He started renegotiating the Star Command facility with a decree to make a fortress out of the spaceship's stranded location, much to Buzz's protests. And if that's not enough, the Star Command troops even attempted to hijack Buzz and rid him of his robot cat, Sox, for 'security purposes'. After escaping the Star Command troops, Buzz and Sox both hightailed it into another section of the planet. There, Buzz crossed paths with another rookie trainer named Izzy. Then, Buzz recognized Izzy as Alisha's granddaughter, and Izzy had learned so much about Buzz from her when she was still alive. What Buzz discovered about Izzy was that she arranged a band of vagabond teammates with the same mission as Buzz: to find the remnants of the components they needed to combine and form the perfect crystalline fusion to fuel up the stranded spaceship. While there, they had to face off some threatening menaces, including the grass monsters, nefarious swarming bugs, and, as part of a much-anticipated showdown, Evil Emperor Zurg.
Before I get into specifics about the movie, let me tell you about my experiences with Buzz Lightyear outside the Toy Story films. Before I even saw this variation of Lightyear, I grew up with another variation of Lightyear entirely, entitled Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Technically, I only grew up with its hour-and-a-half TV pilot. However, I still admire this spinoff on Buzz Lightyear's journey because it roped in more of the recognizable characters from the Toy Story franchise, like the Little Green Men and Evil Emperor Zurg. And most of all, it introduced an otherworldly yet colorful and imaginative look at Star Command, outer space, and other realms of the galaxy that felt generally exciting and like a perfect fit for Buzz Lightyear. As a kid, I admired it immensely, and I was prepared to miss it once I saw this new Lightyear movie. But I'll admit, comparing that cartoon to this movie, strangely enough, feels almost like comparing The Real Ghostbusters to the original Ghostbusters movie. Or rather, it almost feels no different from comparing different versions of Star Trek, either. This Lightyear was meant to be a more dignified, action-packed outlook on how Buzz Lightyear started being a top-ranking Space Ranger. In contrast, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command generally felt like the child-oriented take on Buzz Lightyear's start in being a Space Ranger.
To start with, Buzz Lightyear, in the original, felt like a clueless Space Ranger who eventually came to grips with him being a toy while still holding onto his code of honor. However, I found the Buzz Lightyear in his movie to feel like a wildly skillful and confident Space Ranger, with emphasis on the 'wildly'. At times, he came across as the intergalactic equivalent of Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell. You know, the kind of guy who would've taken bold risks with his flight skills and showed off his incredible talents, whether it would've cost him the mission or caused some jeopardy for himself or his friends. And every time, Buzz acknowledged when he went too far and contemplated where he went wrong as he tried to rise to the occasion and fix his mistakes. This Buzz Lightyear's motivations weren't anything new, fresh, or even substantial. Yet, he at least felt amiable, determined, and conscientious, even as a Space Ranger.
The characters introduced in this movie all felt like they had a chance to leave behind a memorable imprint on the movie. Sometimes, they did. But other times, they fell a little short in their deliveries.
Commander Alisha felt like she was the logical, experienced leader Buzz Lightyear would've relied on, as she always had his back in the more strenuous moments. However, though still giving off the same general outlook and impression, she didn't feel like she left her mark in this movie as a super significant influence on Buzz's life.
Her granddaughter, Izzy, also felt very confident but was not given enough background checks to add to her interest as a character. Instead, she just introduced herself as being related to Alisha, became an impromptu leader of their band of misfits, and planned all the courses of action necessary to find the crystalline fusion she and Buzz needed to hightail it out of the planet. On top of that, she admitted to having a fear of space travel. I don't remember exactly how she got it or if she mentioned that, but it seemed a bit too off-kilter for me.
While I find the relationship between Buzz and Izzy more effective than, say, the relationship between Buzz and Mira, I feel like I caught unintentional parallels with Top Gun: Maverick from that relationship. I mean that this film dealt with the elite pilot teaching the descendant of their best friend the ways of being a Space Ranger. So, was the movie trying to cash in on Top Gun: Maverick's image around its release? I understand that Top Gun: Maverick was meant to come out in 2020, not 2022, so it makes me wonder if Lightyear took elements from that movie into this one. Or was it all just a big coincidence? It's anyone's guess, I think.
Both Mo Morrison and Darby Steel felt like they complimented each other very well. Too well, honestly, because they might have felt generic on their own. Mo was a naive, apologetic man who constantly fretted about the danger levels of the missions he and his teammates upheld. When he got into his new outfit, he was always fascinated whenever his suit popped out a new pen. With Darby, she always talked about how she was arrested for pulling off potentially illegal stunts, many of which contributed to her being on parole for her offenses. I don't recall her mentioning much about what crimes she committed. I guess this made her feel a bit like Horst from Ratatouille, except with fewer mystery factors. On their own, these two might not have worked. Yet, together, the two of them bickering at one another complimented one another and made them feel a little complete, for better or worse.
The new commander who took over after Alisha's passing, Burnside, didn't have enough substance to pose a significant threat to Buzz or even demonstrate why he was a capable leader. All he did was tell Buzz about his new leadership, explain the new rules of the Star Command branch he established, and then try to seize and take hold of anything old or suspicious before they got too of hand. They may have posed a decent enough threat to Buzz, but it could've benefitted from more expositions from Burnside about how he rose into his new position and why he thought staying on the planet was essential for the survivors or Star Command.
And finally, you have Evil Emperor Zurg himself. When first introduced, he was shown as an imposing, threatening robotic figure who became determined to destroy Buzz after he was quote-unquote 'trespassing' on his territory. However, it turned out that he was the older version of Buzz, and he was perceived as what would've happened if Buzz not only continued his testing of the fuel resources but pushed it to a point where he started messing with space and even time. He even expressed elements demonstrating how Buzz would've felt the world should've been if his devotion to it went too far.
When Zurg's suit opened up, I was anticipating that whoever was inside the armored suit would be either one of Buzz's older friends, like, Alisha, or even someone related to him, like his father. Do you remember in Toy Story 2 how Zurg told Buzz he was his father in Toy Story 2 out of homage to The Empire Strikes Back? But here, it turned out that the person inside the Zurg suit was just a future, twisted version of Buzz Lightyear.
Now, the twist pulled off on Zurg in the climax, I thought, was pretty inventive, but not compelling. It served as an engaging twist and variation on Buzz's and Zurg's relationship, more interesting than even I would have anticipated between them. But I still can't help but wonder how things would have gone if Zurg was a separate person from Buzz. Maybe if Zurg was Buzz's father, then the movie could've established itself as a new entry into sci-fi action space flicks while still sneaking in some modest tributes to the past space classics like Star Wars. That might have posed as something compelling.
Of all the new characters to have appeared in this movie, I think my favorite of them all would have to be the robotic cat, Sox, Buzz's animal robot companion. This robot was given to Buzz as a gift from Alisha when she was still alive. If anything, this may have stirred up some memories of her out of Buzz. But most of all, there's something about his analytical approach to designated objectives and his cutesy feline features that made him an absolute charmer.
So, instead of Mira, XR, Booster, Warp Darkmatter, and Commander Nebula, in this movie, we have Izzy, Mo Morrison, Darby Steel, Sox, and Commander Alisha, later replaced by Commander Burnside. Do I miss the original characters? Absolutely. But for what this movie introduced, it at least felt like a decent attempt to start fresh.
Before I get to the other elements I admire about thus movie, let me lay out some things that didn't add up. First, as the movie began, it had an opening quote that went:
In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie.
This is that movie.
Here's one of my first problems with this movie. If this movie was supposed to represent the Lightyear movie that Andy worshipped before he received his Buzz lightyear toy, then wouldn't the Toy Story films have introduced the characters introduced in this movie into the lineup, too? Like, say, Izzy, or Sox, or Commander Alisha? Couldn't the toy equivalents of these characters have appeared anywhere in the Toy Story films by now? That's where the original cartoon got it right by throwing the Little Green Men into Buzz Lightyear's world.
Here, the new characters had the disadvantage of being too brand-new; I don't recall seeing the toy versions of these characters anywhere in the Toy Story films.
And another thing: assuming this movie would've come out in the early-to-mid 1990s in the Toy Story universe, how does Alisha turning out to have been engaged to another woman and getting married fit into the mold? I mean, this might have been, what, 1993? 1994? Back then, gay recognition in the public eye was still in the beginning stages but otherwise still subject to slight scorn. Look at Ellen DeGeneres and her bold declaration of being gay on TV. That occurred around 1997, and Lord knows that homosexuality wasn't touched upon too much back in the early-to-mid 1990s before Ellen DeGeneres broke the mold. But wouldn't it have been too bold and, dare I say it, out of place for the Lightyear movie to have included a lesbian couple, complete with them sharing a kiss onscreen? Would this lesbian relationship have been to Lightyear and the Toy Story universe what Ellen DeGeneres coming out in her TV show in 1997 had been to our world?
I mean, I understand Disney and Pixar's need to be more inclusive nowadays, and good for them on doing that. But I think the movie could've used a little more work in finding out where this would have felt appropriate in the context of its story, characters, setting, and even when it came out in the Toy Story universe. If homosexuality had played a significant role in the story, terrific. But if the LGBTQ+ elements were thrown in in a "look at me, I'm present in Lightyear" manner, then it may come off as feeling a bit forced.
I mean, look at Turning Red! There have been some articles showcasing that it had potential signs of LGBTQ+ elements scattered everywhere, and if so, then, for my money, the LGBTQ+ themes would've been more appropriate in that movie than here in Lightyear.
Oh, what the heck? I understood that I was familiar with a gay couple, Uncle Frank and Aunt Jack, from Mrs. Doubtfire, which came out in 1993. So, who knows? Maybe this would not have been too far off in the 1990s-era Toy Story universe after all.
Of course, despite the LGBTQ+ elements' awkward placement in Lightyear, I also noticed how Alisha was introduced in this movie as Buzz's best friend first, before later being revealed to have been a lesbian. It felt like what Onward did with the cyclopean policewoman; it introduced Alisha as just another Space Ranger doing her job before we found out about her sexuality, making her look like a regular person first and a gay person second. Now, this representation I welcome greatly.
One thing I found myself admiring a lot about this film was its voice acting. Many of the film's actors and actresses generally did a terrific job portraying the characters with a noticeable amount of conviction and dedication to make them sound like believable space travelers and recruits.
Taika Waititi felt surprisingly energetic every time he conveyed Mo's finicky nature. He delivered on his slightly timid nature with noticeable balance, portraying him with the dignity of a man but also with the impulsions of a child.
Four times out of five, Dale Soules felt funny as Darby Steel. With her feisty attitude and proud background, she demonstrated some witty, logical reasoning underneath her allegedly frail image. And the way she quarreled with Waititi as Mo was prone to get some laughs out of me, as well.
Peter Sohn felt adorably analytical and instinctively funny as Sox, the robot cat. His programmatic ways of assessing situations and people evoked some tender respectability from him, especially as he was around other people in the middle of their dilemmas. Also, the idea of hearing him say he was about to analyze something with his scans and then go "meow-meow-meow…" as he did so was bizarrely hilarious.
James Brolin felt surprisingly terrific as Zurg. The voice was already mastered nicely before by Wayne Knight, but Brolin's delivery still carried the aggression noticeable from this character while sounding a little more human. It felt like a nice touch, seeing that Zurg was just a robot piloted by another consciousness, and when you discover who it was, it all added up.
Finally, let's talk about Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear.
Let's face it, Tim Allen embraced every aspect of Buzz Lightyear perfectly with his Space Ranger personality, elite status, tenderness, analytical patterns, and sense of activity. Chris Evans seemed to replicate it perfectly, too, while giving enough of a determined vibe in his voice and a vulnerable side to his character to make this performance his own. After nailing it with Captain America for the MCU, Chris Evans felt like the ideal actor to portray a generally optimistic, heroic guy. And here, he was talented enough to apply all the same characteristics to Buzz Lightyear while keeping them all separate from Captain America and what Tim Allen mastered before him.
Come to think of it, it is bizarre to think that Lightyear hopped from one timeline to the next as he lost some friends along the way and made some new ones from the future, also like Captain America. Do you think?
The planet’s environments evoked all kinds of weird, curious, and uncertain angles. It was wide-open, had ominous-looking jungles, and had some potential civilization brewing from this planet. Although, I think that's just the extra recruits joining Buzz and Alisha to try to help them out before settling onto the terrain as another de-facto Star Command branch. But the landscape also looked slightly inhospitable, with such treacherous elements as the grass monsters lunging out, grabbing people by their foot, and dragging them away. Their captures sometimes played for comic relief, though, which I thought felt slightly out of place.
The locales inside Buzz's old spaceship, Zurg's spaceship, and especially Star Command's offices all carried a satisfactory level of future sci-fi space travel ethics. Though there was not just much explored within Buzz's old spaceship, the movie did treat us to how it functioned on the outside and even the inside, mainly concerning the spaceship's size. In addition, the designs of the interiors of the Star Command facilities carried elements of space authority and inventiveness with their modules. And Zurg's spaceship, though still maintaining the futuristic space feel, brought a more ominous feeling to it, intensifying the threat factor from Zurg and his evil robot army.
Futuristically, Lightyear was even creative with its products. For example, there were some scenes where Buzz had his meals, and they were all prepackaged and ready to be served as if they were microwavable dinners. But instead, the foods were all just one solidified goop of components separated by food groups. And later, when Buzz, Izzy, and the others were decomposing after being shipwrecked on a remote part of the planet, they all snacked on sandwiches made differently. Rather than eating sandwiches with two slices of bread and the meat in the middle, the sandwiches were instead structured as two ends of meat and a slice of bread in the middle. This approach, weird as it felt, still toyed around with the idea of such food being different from what we're used to as food in our world, either in the future or in space.
Frankly, I ought to give the animators credit for this one aspect of the animation: the characters were shown either out of suit or trying on different suits. Now, I admire the creative diversity of these suits, going from suits built for such purposes as space travel to the green suit being introduced in various colors and even in different versions. The wings, it turned out, would've been one of the suit's later modifications. I was fond of the creative functions of the suits, as well. Do you remember the big red button on toy Buzz's chest, which propelled the wings to spring forth for him? Here, that button was functioned and used as an emergency button; it puffed out an inflation device, like a parachute or something. If there's one thing that convinced me that the movie was off to a decent start as a potential franchise, it's the creativity of the gadgetry and compatibility of the space outfits.
Of course, because the characters changed between outfits throughout the movie, that included Buzz Lightyear, as I saw him outside his suit at times, too. Having been accustomed to seeing Buzz remain in his green outfit all the way through, watching Buzz as he was out of his uniform was undoubtedly an inventive way to look at him. And he didn't look too shabby when out of his uniform. He looked like a strong, young, healthy, noble-looking man who looked like he was getting started and had plenty ahead of him but had a good heart. I became legitimately fond of this design of Buzz Lightyear for that reason.
Not only that but there's something about the movie's portrayal of space that felt rich with atmosphere. There's one scene where Izzy tried to overcome her fear of space traveling, and she had to do it by hopping from one section of Zurg's spaceship to the next with Sox on her side. You can feel her hesitation to jump because of how massive space was. Whether she looked up or even down, there was nothing but stars as far as the eye could see, even though gravity is nonexistent in space. Its portrayal of space felt very spot on, even on a scientific level.
If you think you have permission to leave once Lightyear's end credits roll, I would advise against that. Most movies today have fun with their end credits and throw in a post-credit scene, sometimes two, as most MCU movies have done. So how many post-credit scenes does Lightyear have?
There are no other films I can think of that had at least these many post-credit scenes outside of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
I won't give away what happens in these scenes, but two of these scenes were humorous, and the last one was where things got serious. It was so serious that it left me wondering for a minute if Lightyear would get a sequel. Was this what the filmmakers had in mind? Well, judging from the movie's mediocre response at the box office and among critics, it's a little up in the air at this point. Or should I say, up in space?
Before I forget, what do I have to say about the story? In trying to sum it up, it goes like this:
Lightyear carelessly tried to get himself and his teammates out of a planet only to wreck part of the spaceship and leave themselves stranded there.
He spent years and years trying to find and perfect the combustible components they needed to refuel the stranded spaceship but found a ragtag team of misfits trying to find the same thing.
They encountered Zurg.
Zurg's just an evil future version of Buzz.
Buzz sacrificed the crystalline fusion to save himself and his friends.
Buzz, after being promoted to Chief Space Ranger, selected Izzy and her buddies as his first troops without ever launching the wrecked spaceship back into space.
As far as the spaceship was concerned, the movie had a lot of buildup to its potential resurrection and launching back into space. But instead, what its subplot ended on felt kind of counterproductive. And as I said, there's a part of me that felt like maybe Zurg would have benefitted more if he was a separate person from Buzz. As is, it had a solid structure that only got wobblier as it went on.
But it's not just that. As I watched this film, I wondered: where's home to Buzz and the others? In fact, where's the home base of Star Command if this was just but one of the ships at its disposal? As its solo film, I feel like Lightyear only scraped the surface, like it had so much more, well, ground to cover. If Lightyear is successful enough to warrant a sequel that would continue the adventures of Buzz Lightyear and his companions, then I wouldn't mind the setup.
Come what may, Lightyear had some solid elements to it that would've set it apart from most other space flicks as an up-and-coming underdog story that rose to the stars. The bad news is, that's mostly what we saw on the surface, thick as it was. The characters were decent, the worldbuilding off to a promising start, the animation marvelous, and the voice acting was terrific, but its story's lack of fuel, if you will, backtracked it. Like I said, though, some signs hint that Buzz Lightyear's journey may be far from over and that it could still have a ways to go. I hope that's the case, because maybe then, the creative teams behind Lightyear could push themselves further and substantialize Lightyear's sense of worldbuilding and storytelling to make it more worthy of the famed character.
As a solo film, it has its heart in the right place but not the right motives to pull itself through. Here's hoping that 'to infinity and beyond' is within reach for Lightyear as a franchise-to-be.