Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
The Legacy of Toy Story
In 1995, Pixar Animation Studios revolutionized animation history with the first fully computer-animated feature, Toy Story. While the animation quality may be primitive by today's standards, it is still a phenomenal movie with an enduring and heartwarming tale about toys coming to life, impressive computer graphics for its time, and its huge memorable cast of characters.
So much so, that it helped make Pixar a beloved animation studio by presenting us with a library of timeless classics to this day. Toy Story was also one of a few franchises that managed to achieve the impossible by creating sequels and spin-offs that maintained their integrity. Even the fourth one, which people thought was initially unnecessary, was proven to be a worthy follow-up continuing the story of Woody and the gang.
Among its characters, Buzz Lightyear is one of the most iconic for his portrayal as a space ranger full of gadgets and weapons, his satirical over-the-top personality, and his catchphrase "To infinity and beyond!" Not to mention being the subject of many spin-off media, such as video games, theme park rides, and even his own animated series. In fact, I remember owning the VHS of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, which was the pilot of the series disguised as a direct-to-video movie with Tim Allen reprising his titular role. It was okay, but not on the same levels as the movies themselves.
But now, Pixar decides to take an experimental turn with the franchise by telling the origin story of the real-life Buzz Lightyear, on which the toy was based. Admittedly, I found that to be a clever and refreshing way of continuing the Toy Story franchise instead of giving us another sequel. With so much ambition and potential, what ranking does this movie earn?
A young Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) must save his crew stranded on a dangerous planet while facing a threat known as Zurg (voiced by Josh Brolin).
A Misguided, Yet Interesting Mission
With director Angus MacLane being an avid fan of science fiction, there are many creative possibilities to conjure up an origin story about the Space Ranger himself. It's also worth noting that this movie bears no connection to the animated series since MacLane characterized the show as a "cartoon" version of the toy while Lightyear as the "live-action" version of the toy. As strange as that sounds, it emphasizes how the tone gives the movie a more serious and realistic direction where Buzz and his crew are now trapped on a planet where he constantly experiments with a hyperspace fuel source as means of returning home. In other words, this story decides to go with a time-traveling plot. The term "lightyear" does mean something.
Depsite being an overused and complicated plot, I honestly found it to be interesting...for the most part. It shows how determined Buzz wants to succeed in his mission while the other inhabitants slowly began adapting to living on the planet during his multiple attempts and absences. Plus, since this is a Pixar movie, it definitely knows to execute the story in a more emotional manner, especially with Buzz's relationship with his partner Alisha.
Of course, once Buzz meets Alisha's granddaughter and encounters Zurg, this is where the story takes a back seat of its quality and becomes more lighthearted. Granted, there is an appropriate amount of humor, thanks to some of the charming characters and performances. Not to mention some callbacks and references to the Toy Story franchise while retaining its own identity. Plus, it does supply some fun action scenes that definitely fit into what Buzz Lightyear would usually do. The only issue I have with it is that the tone would get inconsistent as if I was watching a totally different movie. I understand movies sometimes need to lighten the mood, but it needs to connect within the structure of the story. With that said, both tones of the story are good on their own merit, just not together.
The writing had the right amount both of creativity and entertainment to convey Buzz's origins; it's just that another draft would've helped.
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Pixar has manifested time and time again that the quality of their animation has improved with each Toy Story film and Lightyear takes the art direction a whole step further.
In order to stay true and connected to the Toy Story universe, the humans are designed to look and move realistically with a hint of familiarity and abstract features (i.e. rounder heads, expressive eyes). Even the space suits come with a few added features that the toy wishes it would have, like camouflage and an inflatable balloon-like shield. The attention to detail is exquisite when it comes to textures of the hair, clothing, and futuristic aesthetic.
Since this is a sci-fi movie, the animators went all-out to make the scale of the world around the characters as huge and enveloping as possible. Even their extensive research trip to NASA provided them with enough components to visually craft this picture. The planet T'Kani Prime may be lacking in vibrant colors, but the atmosphere and world-building make up for it. It is fascinating that the people of Star Command would find a planet full of hostile living plants and adapt to living here as a building community over time. It has the usually advanced technology along with bizarrely-charming customs like eating sandwiches with bread on the inside instead of the outside. During Zurg's reign, the environment becomes dissilient and gives a sense of approaching danger. The cinematography highlights how massive space is and delivers grand effects animation that pays tribute to classics, such as Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whenever an action sequence occurs, it becomes suspenseful and intense whenever the situation gets dire.
Although I saw the regular theatrical version, this type of experience is suitable for the IMAX version of the film. There is definitely hard work and effort put into the animation and Pixar found a way to make Lightyear visually appealing.
Buzz Lightyear & Friends
As I mentioned before, even if the writing would confuse and hinder the tone, the characters and comedy do add some captivity to the viewing experience. On paper, these characters are simple and offer much depth. But, the execution fleshes them out more with some entertaining acting.
Being an origin story about an iconic character, the movie took a risk and managed to stay faithful to Buzz Lightyear's character with a well-developed arc. He is a young astronaut who is devoted to saving his crew by succeeding in his mission by all means. Though he makes every failed attempt, he acknowledges how much flawed he is and misses out on the life he wishes he had with his partner Alisha Hawthrone. Speaking of Alisha, she is Buzz's longtime friend who experiences a new life on the planet during Buzz's absences yet still maintains the emotional bonding between them.
Upon landing in the near future, Buzz comes across a team of underdogs: Alisha's aspiring granddaughter Izzy, the naïve yet cowardly Mo, and the paroled elder Darby. But, the best addition to the crew is Sox, a robotic therapy cat that becomes Buzz's companion and the funniest character of the film, thanks to Peter Sohn's performance. Every actor in this movie shows a genuine and authentic personality that outshines the writing's shortcomings. Even Chris Evans surprisingly pulled off an effective performance that carries what made the character so memorable, similarly to how Tim Allen provided the voice.
However, the sole character that I have mixed feelings for is Buzz's new arch-nemesis Emperor Zurg. His intimidating robotic suit is designed well and packaged with Josh Brolin's performance. But, once we figure out who he really is, this is where die-hard fans would get flabbergasted. On the one hand, his identity was unexpected and it kind of makes sense how the story was written to begin with. On the other hand, the practice leaves more questions than answers on the villain's motive. Regardless, the characters are the backbone that helps keep this movie in orbit.
Buzz's Flawed First Adventure
After evaluating its qualifications and progression, this movie has proven to be a member of Star Command, but needs a little work. Lightyear is technically impressive, but by far the weakest entry in the Toy Story franchise. The movie has an emotional and intriguing concept, meticulous animation, and delightful characters. The only things that it needs training on are the coherent tone and perplexing antagonist.
As Pixar's first official spin-off, it was a tough, yet satisfying experience to retain the legacy of Toy Story and Buzz Lightyear. No doubt that fans of the franchise will have a, no pun intended, blast with this feature. It is also recommended to see it in IMAX for the technical aspects. For everyone else, it's worth watching, but keep your expectations low.
The future of Toy Story remains a mystery, but whatever happens, its legacy will be remembered to infinity and beyond!