The Media Man Reviews: Lightyear
It's so weird to think that we haven't had a Pixar movie in cinemas since Onward back in 2020, am I right? Thanks to COVID, Soul and Luca ended up being shown on Disney+ as they wouldn't have had a chance in cinemas thanks to the pandemic and come this year, despite the pandemic not really being as bad as it once was, they STILL threw Turning Red onto Disney+...yet they kept this one as a theatrical release. I really don't get this. They make Turning Red a Disney+ exclusive but Lightyear gets a theatrical release? Why? Is it because it's connected to the Toy Story universe and thus Disney thinks people might be more willing to go see it in cinemas as a result? Ah well, I'm just glad we can see a Pixar movie in theatres again after two long years.
Anyway, Lightyear is certainly an...interesting instalment in Pixar's ever-growing library. I mean of all the movies they could make, they make one about Buzz Lightyear of all people? And not even the character from Toy Story but like the "real" Buzz Lightyear that inspired the toy in-universe? Even by Pixar standards, that just sounds like a really weird idea for a movie and a strange direction to go in. And yet, Pixar are the kings of making strange ideas work so naturally, I was gonna give it a shot regardless. The trailers came out and made the movie look like it was going to be better than I initially thought so I went from being weirded out to thinking "Actually, this looks pretty cool..."
So is this a movie that takes us to infinity and beyond? Or should we let Emperor Zurg destroy this movie? Let's get on our space ranger gear and take flight as we go into outer space for my review on Lightyear...
Section 1: The Story
Important Disclaimer: I have NOT seen the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command movie so don't expect any comparisons between them. This review is based purely on my thoughts of Lightyear on its own.
As the movie explains to us in an opening text, this is the movie that inspired Andy to get the Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday back in Toy Story. And what's the story for that movie? We follow the titular Buzz Lightyear as his reckless actions causes him and his crew to remain marooned on an uncharted planet. His determination to fix his mistakes only causes him to miss several years of his life and to miss out on the lives of his friends and also finds him up against a robot invasion that will test his limits as a space ranger while also putting him in a situation where he may have to get used to having a team around to help.
The first thing I'm going to say is that I LOVE the framing device of this movie. Having that text at the beginning telling us "In 1995, Andy bought a toy from his favourite movie. This is that movie" manages to keep this movie as a standalone movie that's not overly-reliant on the Toy Story movies while also making fans of the original Buzz Lightyear of Star Command animated series happy as this isn't replacing or retconning the show by presenting itself as a movie that Andy watched and enjoyed and not "the definitive" version of that show. Though I would've liked it if rather than a text at the beginning telling us that, the movie opened up with a young Andy sitting down in a cinema to watch the movie and it unfolds from there. That felt like a MASSIVE missed opportunity if you ask me.
Speaking of missed opportunities, the story itself really felt like one of those. They had the potential to get really creative with the plot of the movie and be as out there as possible and make it really big and epic, something on the scale of Star Wars or something like that. And what do we get instead? A very paint-by-numbers story where it's pretty easy to guess how things will go. The story isn't bad by any means, and I'll get to the good stuff. It's just the trailers made the movie look so promising and like it was really going to be something incredible but upon seeing the movie, it just felt like a collection of clichés that made the story feel very uninteresting as a result. It's the kind of story that we've seen plenty of times in other movies: the hero makes a mistake he has to fix, he wants to do it alone but finds he can't and needs help from his team mates that he didn't even want beforehand and learns to bond with them all while stopping the villain in the end. Pixar movies are usually way more creative than this and we saw all that with Turning Red earlier this year, so to see them go through such a generic plot line here made this a rather underwhelming watch by comparison.
Also the movie's theme of fixing mistakes, while a good message, is REALLY hammered into your skull to the point it starts feeling preachy. We get it movie, we know what your message is, your audience isn't stupid for goodness sake! And I also wasn't a big fan of the pacing here too. Some scenes felt a little too quick for me, like the movie was in a hurry to move onto the next big action scene at times. They barely even devote any time to the world-building and leave it as window-dressing in some scenes, like the state of the world during Zurg's invasion. I feel they really didn't delve enough into how things have gone since he invaded and that they should've delved deeper into that to make things more interesting.
Also, there's a twist in the movie that I REALLY didn't like. And here I thought Jurassic World was disappointing enough with its own twist... Without spoiling the movie, I'm just going to say that those that were sick of Disney's trend of big reveal/twist villains is back with a vengeance here and while it works for the story and makes for a neat foil to our hero, I really didn't like it and it kinda makes it hard for me to look at this villain the same way again. I'm just saying they should've kept the villain as a mysterious, menacing presence instead of having some big reveal here.
Despite the plot being as generic and bland as it is, I did say it's NOT a bad story by any means. Yes it's as clichéd as it gets and rather easy to figure out how it'll go, but it still manages to have some enjoyable moments to it. The cast themselves are pretty likeable and have some enjoyable quirks to them from Buzz's constant narrations to Izzy's enthusiasm to Mo's dorky nature and Darby's unsettling love for weapons, what little world-building we do get is pretty fascinating (namely how Buzz and his crew create an entire civilization on the planet they're stranded on and make use of its resources), it has a good message on how fixing mistakes is good, but you shouldn't be too overly-focused on your errors and that you shouldn't always try to do everything by yourself (as heavy-handed as it was) and it still manages to have that Pixar level of heart and emotional moments that we've come to expect from the company after 27 years of movies.
One scene I thought was especially effective in the movie was when Buzz gets back from another failed hyperspace mission and comes back...only to find he's missed the death of his closest friend and colleague. That scene alone was so well-done and only goes to show just how self-destructive Buzz's determination to fix his mistake and complete the mission has caused him to miss out on the lives of his friends, something he realizes later on in the movie. It was a poignant moment in Buzz's character arc that hits you in the heartstrings while also serving as a neat moment of development for him. It also gives another message that the movie wasn't as heavy-handed about: the importance of living your life and how it shouldn't be spent on one singular thing. Buzz spends too much time trying to complete the mission and is missing out on things like his friend's marriage, her raising kids and grandkids and everything else around him, something that plays into his decision to fight against the villain in the end. It's all solid character writing and shows that even a bland story can have something great in it.
Speaking of great, the comedy is really effective here too. Some of the jokes may miss but when they hit, they REALLY hit. I was genuinely laughing at a lot of moments in the movie whether its some clever lines, some funny call backs to the Toy Story films, some hilarious delivery of the dialogue (especially from Sox) and much more. Pixar can be surprisingly funny when they're not busy trying to make you cry and they really manage to make this one funny at times. And not only is the comedy pretty good at times, but the action scenes are where the movie really shines too. They're fast-paced, intense and they really get creative on how many obstacles can get in our hero's way or how many things can go wrong to really give everyone a tough time as they try to fight off the villain or complete a flying mission. It almost ends up feeling like a Star Wars movie when those scenes happen and it's quite fun to watch.
The story had a lot of potential but ultimately played it a bit too safe and gave us a pretty bland plot that is thankfully saved by having some really good moments and comedy in it to at least keep it from being boring. Could've been better, but it's decent enough with what it did...
Section 2: The Characters
This is the movie that inspired Andy to get the toy, so how did it do in characterizing Buzz Lightyear? Pretty well, honestly.
Buzz Lightyear (played by Chris Evans) is the hero of this movie and I love how they characterized him similar to his toy counterpart in being overly dramatic at times, being very courageous and a true hero at heart (and also saying a lot of the lines his toy counterpart would say in the movies) but they also humanized him so he feels like a character and not a toy for a kid to play with. He has a dislike of rookies and autopilots and he's VERY devoted to his cause to a reckless degree. He's so fixated on completing his mission and fixing his mistake that he's missing out on the more important things in life and it leaves him in a situation where he has to learn that sometimes its better to adapt than to try fixing the past. While his character arc maybe a little familiar as the experienced hero who has to learn to work with others and not be so focused on the mission all the time, it is a solid arc and they really gave the man that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy a great amount of depth that makes him a cool hero. No wonder Andy wanted a toy of this guy when he saw the movie. XD
We also have Alishia Hawthorne (played by Uzo Aduba) who serves as Buzz's commanding officer and closest friend. She's only really there at the beginning of the movie but her role plays a big part in the development of Buzz and her granddaughter, Izzy (played by Keke Palmer) while also playing into the film's themes of fixing mistakes and the importance of living your life in the time you have. I really liked her in the time we got with her and it's easy to see why Buzz was so close to her.
As mentioned, we have Alishia's granddaughter, Izzy, who is part of Buzz's crew in the fight against Zurg. She has her own arc in where she's keen to live up to her grandmother's legacy and become a space ranger herself, only to be held back by an actual phobia of space. While not the most interesting character out there, she was decent enough I thought and I liked her.
Other members of Buzz's crew include a robot cat named Sox (played by long time Pixar employee Peter Sohn), Mo Morrison (played by Taikia Waititi) and Darby Steel (played by Dale Soules). Sox ended up being much funnier and more useful than I expected him to be and thankfully didn't overstay his welcome or get annoying like I feared he was going to and he proves to be a very helpful companion to Buzz. Mo and Darby aren't exactly deep or compelling characters but they have a few funny moments here and there with some great delivery from their voice-actors.
And of course it wouldn't be a Buzz Lightyear movie without his arch-enemy himself, Zurg (played by James Brolin). Zurg has a proper menacing presence in this movie and really gives our heroes a tough time. Too bad there's a twist regarding him that kinda ruins all that but regardless, he still works as Buzz's arch-enemy here and even proves to be a contrasting foil to him but again, spoilers so I can't explain why.
Curiously enough, we have a rookie ranger named Featheringhamstan (played by Bill Hader) who only appears at the beginning of the movie and then never shows up again. I say curiously enough because it seems like he's going to be a big important character in the movie and might even become Buzz's new companion that he has to grow to respect and work with while also mentoring him into being a better ranger but no, he NEVER appears again after the opening prologue so what was the point of him? Why was he here if he was going to be a whole packet of nothing in the end? If he's there just to set-up Buzz's dislike of rookies then that's just a wasteful way to use a character. Characters shouldn't be there just to set up another character's personality trait! They could've at least done SOMETHING with him instead of nothing!
The characters are pretty simple and have clear arcs from beginning to end but they're still well-written enough that you can enjoy going on an adventure with these guys.
Section 3: The Animation
It's a Pixar movie. The animation is really good. What do you expect me to say? =P
No seriously, I really do find the animation to be the least interesting part to talk about when I review a Pixar movie because it just feels like I'm saying the same thing over and over:
What else do we expect from Pixar at this point? Their animation is just gonna continue being amazing so why even talk about it anymore? Because Pixar still manages to amaze us all on just how incredible their visuals can be, that's why.
As this movie is a sci-fi flick, Pixar gives us a lot of beautiful shots of space and a lot of outer space action with some really awesome looking spacecraft that look very sci-fi, yet convincing that they could actually fly too. They've given us great shots of space in previous films like WALL.E so we know they can animate space beautifully and they really do it great here. We get to see other planets, a cool flying scene around the sun and a very colourful, somewhat trippy hyperspace travel as Buzz tests out his new fuel cell to see if it's the answer to his problem he's been looking for this whole time. We also get a movie that is rich with details in the visuals that make everything we're seeing look that extra bit more lifelike from the textures of the rocks and vines of the planet Buzz and his crew are inhabiting, the clothes our characters wear, the metal on the robots and especially the iconic Space Ranger suit that Buzz Lightyear made famous all those years ago when Toy Story came out. I especially LOVE how they made the Space Ranger suits look with them being more detailed and metallic in appearance while still evoking the original Buzz Lightyear toy design so you can still see how they made a toy of this in the Toy Story universe. The suits are appropriately bulky looking, like something that could protect you from a lot of damage and whatever you may end up going against and they especially look practical for space travel, like we really could fly through space or visit other planets while wearing them.
As for the character designs, they have that usual Pixar style to them while also staying true to what we have in the Toy Story movies and remaining as expressive as ever. Even Sox manages to be surprisingly expressive despite being a robot cat with a more toy like appearance. XD The humans have slightly more cartoonish proportions like with the large eyes and Buzz's huge chin but have more rounded features like how the humans would look in Toy Story. I especially think they did a good job on giving us what a "human" Buzz Lightyear would look like. I imagine some might be weirded out by seeing the iconic character as not a toy anymore but I find it believable to think that in-universe, this is the man the toy would've been based on. My favourite character design of them all is easily Zurg. He's depicted as this HUGE robot that towers over our heroes and keeps the original toy version's iconic features while looking more realistic, detailed and menacing by comparison. The animators especially make him look great whenever he's onscreen and give some wonderful build-up to his eventual appearance by having him mostly obscured or bathed in shadows with only his silhouette and glowing eyes visible. This was the way to make Zurg look and they made him look amazing. Too bad the twist involving him kinda spoils that but still, his design is incredible regardless of it.
The scenery is gorgeously detailed and convincingly brought to life in this movie with realistic looking lightning effects, textures and colour palette that almost make this whole movie look like it was filmed with empty backgrounds and populated with CGI characters. This is the level of realism that Pixar movies have achieved in this day and age and it's spell-binding to look at! Even the planet they're on, the civilization they create while marooned there and Zurg's ship look like they could actually exist and you could visit those places with beautifully detailed and convincing they look, sci-fi or not!
And of course this beautiful animation lends itself to some of the film's great comedy and action scenes where the comical moments will be fun to watch and the action scenes will be exciting to watch. The action scenes especially get creative in how many different ways things can go wrong during a tense situation, showing the writers and animators thought of many different things that can happen in these moments and it gets really nerve-racking at times as you wonder what else can go wrong and how our heroes will make it out in the end. I especially enjoy the action scenes with Zurg in how he comes off as this unstoppable juggernaut where barely anything fazes him whenever the heroes take a shot at him. When he's onscreen, you know things are going down and that it's no laughing matter!
The animation is what we usually expect from Pixar these days and yet they still manage to impress us no matter how many times they've broken the boundaries they've set when making the first Toy Story movie. With some incredibly detailed, beautiful visuals that make for a great looking space opera flick, this is a movie that really makes outer space and an adventure with Buzz and his team look so good...
This was the movie that inspired Andy to get the toy...and I can see why.
The story is generic and very clichéd by Pixar standards, the characters are pretty simple in concept, the villain has an unnecessary twist regarding them and they're WAY too on-the-nose with its themes and messages, but at the same time it manages to have some fun and exciting moments that keep the experience from being boring, some really good comedy, some solid character arcs, great voice-acting and some GORGEOUS animation that makes for a really pretty viewing experience. Lightyear had a lot of potential and while it didn't utilize all of it, it was still a relatively enjoyable viewing experience. Just lower your expectations a little for this movie as it's not the standard level of Pixar quality we've come to expect. It's just good fun that you can enjoy for 90 or so minutes. I will admit though, it does kinda make me want to wear a space ranger suit. XD
And that's it for my review on Lightyear. I hope you enjoyed the review and I'd also like to hear your thoughts down below. Did you like it? Did you not like? Feel free to share in the comments. Tune in next week as we head back down to Earth to see the life of one of music's most legendary rock stars. See you then everyone!