Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are stranded on a hostile planet, unable to leave unless they find a stable fuel source. Lightyear offers to fly a test flight, but in doing so he experiences time dilation as each flight takes him four years into the future. After several flights, he returns to the planet to find that Hawthorne’s granddaughter (Keke Palmer) is now leading a ragtag group of volunteers (Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) against an unknown enemy known only as Zurg (James Brolin )…
A benign view of “Lightyear” is that it’s a movie-movie like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or any Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s a film that references others, exists in a world of its own, and honors and pays homage to its influences. The other view is that it indicates creative bankruptcy in which you have an origin story for a toy from another toy movie. Taking ‘Lightyear’ on its own merits is great fun.
Chris Evans plays the titular character as Captain America on even more steroids, his baritone voice easily recounting his mission logs while opening an octave when the comedy demands it – which is more often than the trailers would. to believe. Lightyear’s companion throughout the film varies, except for one – Sox, voiced by animator Peter Sohn. A robot cat that hides a USB cord in its tail and has a white noise generator in its mouth, Sox and Lightyear together make a familiar comedy duo, while ragtag volunteers led by Keke Palmer include Taika Waititi and ‘Orange Is The New Black’ alum Dale Soules, one playing a clumsy guy and the other a pro-demolition ex-con.
At a brisk hundred minutes of runtime, “Lightyear” keeps the story light (no pun intended) and direct. We don’t need a full explanation of how it’s connected to ‘Toy Story’ – a simple black and white message at the start describes everything you need – and considering how it uses familiar sci-fi tropes throughout, the rubber meets the road much faster. Star Command is stranded on a planet, Lightyear feels responsible as he pilots the crashed craft, takes on test flight duties, and ends up experiencing time dilation. Simple, neat, effective.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s kinda the point. ‘Lightyear’ is pleasing because it gives off a warm, recognizable glow at every turn. The mission logs remind you of ‘Star Trek’, the ship designs seem to be from ‘Battlestar Galactica’, the time dilation aspect is something you’ll have seen in ‘Interstellar‘, and while it may not all be original, it never once rings hollow. The choices never seem to be made for convenience, but rather because they try to speak in the same visual and thematic language and are deeply inspired by it. Director Angus MacLane is undoubtedly a science fiction enthusiast, and given that so much science fiction today seems too concerned with emphasizing the despair of our future, “Lightyear” feels like a throwback to a time when traveling to the stars seemed like a joyous adventure, not a necessary escape from this world.
“Lightyear” isn’t breaking new ground, even though it does have an openly LGBT character in its main cast. Chris Evans isn’t stretched to play an all-American space ranger, and you can strip references to other movies and call it cleanup. For all that, “Lightyear” is always so well-meaning and personable, so good-natured and fun, that it’s hard to hold it against him for too long. The premise is that “Lightyear” inspired a young child’s imagination with dreams of space rangers, evil emperors, and distant planets over a quarter century ago.
He can do it again.