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"Lightyear" (2022) Review: A Visually Gorgeous Nod to Science Fiction

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

One of many theatrical posters for "Lightyear."

One of many theatrical posters for "Lightyear."

In Space, No One Can Hear You Meow

Lightyear has a simple, but clever premise that fits it into the Toy Story timeline and it takes full advantage of the creative freedom baked into the narrative. In the original Toy Story, Andy got the Buzz Lightyear toy because he fell in love with a movie starring Buzz. Well, Lightyear is that movie, a prequel in the purest sense.

In the world of the film, test pilot Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Chris Evans) wakes up from hyper sleep to research and explore a nearby planet that is off the course of his ship’s destination. The mission results in Buzz’s entire crew being marooned on a planet overrun by giant insects and bothersome vines. With guilt weighing heavily on his shoulders, Buzz takes it upon himself to be the pilot responsible for hyper speed tests.

After spending a year on the planet, there’s finally enough resources for a test flight. But the mission fails and when Buzz returns, four years have passed. Intending to finish the mission despite the consequences, Buzz pilots test flight after test flight as each mission results in years passing while he’s away. He watches his friends grow old and die until he finally returns to a planet that now cowers to the ominous Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his battalion of relentlessly inhuman robots.

Lightyear is the directorial debut of Angus MacLane, who'd previously co-directed Finding Dory, and who's been animating at Pixar since 1998’s A Bug’s Life. Written by MacLane, Matthew Aldrich (Coco), and Jason Headley (Onward), Lightyear is receiving a lot of backlash for including a same-sex relationship, as well as an on-screen lesbian kiss. Some countries are even refusing to release the film in theaters because of it.

The relationship involves a Space Ranger named Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Orange is the New Black, Steven Universe), who becomes an inspirational figure for not only Buzz, but Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer). While Buzz is being a "superhero" doing cool space tests, she's been stuck on the planet T'Kani Prime, raising a daughter with her wife Kiko. Alisha’s relationship is the most sentimental aspect of the film. Lightyear wouldn’t be the same without its inclusion.

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Chris Evans voices Buzz Lightyear in "Lightyear."

Chris Evans voices Buzz Lightyear in "Lightyear."

Out of This World Animation Combined With a Story on Auto Pilot

The film does some different stuff with Zurg as far as who he is and how he relates to Buzz that may or may not retcon what was established in Toy Story 2. Both the story and the writing of the film seem to play it safe as they take a predictable approach to what essentially could have been something more unique. The discussion that’s been floating around about the film is that the jokes, sillier moments, and more absurd lines of dialogue seem to always disrupt the film whenever it tries to take a step towards being a thrilling sci-fi film. It’s difficult to argue with this statement, especially since Mo Morrison’s (Taika Waititi) whole purpose in the film is to broadcast his incompetence and the film revolves around a team of misfits attempting to save the planet despite their shortcomings.

The film is visually one of the year’s best looking films, animated or otherwise. Taking inspiration from early sci-fi films and space operas like Star Wars, Angus MacLane wanted Lightyear to look “cinematic” and “chunky.” This is the first animated film to ever have sequences shown in 1.43:1 aspect ratio (it’s usually 2.39:1). Visual effects supervisor Jane Yen said that a virtual IMAX camera was developed to shoot said sequences, which were then cropped to standard definition. The film is gorgeous and even looks different in comparison to other Pixar films. With its lush colors, heavy use of shadows, bright lighting for highlights, and character designs for insects and robots that seem to be directly inspired by the likes of Starship Troopers and the Gundam anime franchise, Lightyear is a visually delicious treat.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his robot feline companion Sox (Peter Sohn) in "Lightyear."

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his robot feline companion Sox (Peter Sohn) in "Lightyear."

Angus MacLane has his love for Star Wars showcased a bit too often in Lightyear as certain sequences seem to be directly lifted from the George Lucas created franchise. Many of Zurg’s scenes are a direct homage to various Darth Vader sequences in the Star Wars films. When Buzz is carried upside down by a Zyclops as Izzy and the others try to help him free borrows heavily from The Empire Strikes Back when Luke is hanging upside down in the icy Wampa cave; Buzz is even wearing an orange and white outfit that resembles Luke’s when he pilots the X-Wing. The love for Star Wars is as much a hindrance as it is an inspiration. The film spends more time referencing its origins rather than putting more of a focus on establishing its own identity.

Sox is legitimately the most fun character of the film. He’s humorous and resourceful; a robot cat that is Buzz’s most useful tool and companion. If Disney doesn’t resurrect Teddy Ruxpin technology for a new Sox animatronic toy then it will end up being wasted potential to a soul crushing extent.

Izzy (Keke Palmer), Darby (Dale Soules), Mo (Taika Waititi), Sox (Peter Sohn), and Buzz (Chris Evans) in "Lightyear."

Izzy (Keke Palmer), Darby (Dale Soules), Mo (Taika Waititi), Sox (Peter Sohn), and Buzz (Chris Evans) in "Lightyear."

Like Toy Story 4, Lightyear is an unnecessary installment to the Toy Story franchise, but is enjoyable nonetheless. It's so devoted to classic science fiction, the film almost feels like a legit sci-fi actioner rather than, well, Toy Story. In the end, though, it has a rich and palpable atmosphere that is gorgeously animated and is filled with Pixar's signature laugh out loud and heartfelt moments.

© 2022 Chris Sawin

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