‘Lightyear’: The Space Ranger Gets An Enjoyably Action-Packed Origin Saga

If we’re going to continue on this sequel, prequel, reboot train, then it’s worthy of cheer when the studios deliver something worthwhile. Disney Pixar’s “Lightyear” takes a creative approach to bring back a famous character with a fresh setting. This isn’t a standalone movie about Buzz Lightyear, the Space Ranger toy first introduced in 1995’s “Toy Story” who immortalized the phrase, “To infinity and beyond!” Instead, it’s the movie that inspired the toy. This is a sly, creative way to get around the inevitable eye-rolling of viewers wondering if any classic movie remains sacred in a time where all franchises are looted for excuses to deliver more titles. In addition to applying an original approach, “Lightyear” works as a fun popcorn space adventure. It’s the action movie for audiences still too young for “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The movie opens explaining how in 1995 a boy named Andy, meaning the kid from “Toy Story,” received his Buzz Lightyear action figure. “Lightyear” is the film from which the toy was “based.” The actual digital flesh and blood Buzz (Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger who is not only heroic but extremely cocky. While on a mission with fellow ranger and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) to a distant planet, Buzz makes one of those rash decisions that leaves the entire ship and its occupants stranded. While the survivors make due and build a colony protected from the barren planet’s hostile elements, Buzz makes it his duty to crack a fuel formula needed to achieve hyperspace in order to get back home. The problem is every time he makes a flight to try and achieve this aim, those pesky sci-fi laws of time and space get in the way, and he loses four years with every attempt. With each trip Buzz stays the same age while everyone else continues life’s cycles. 

This is merely the beginning of what turns out to be a delightful space romp that can stand on its own apart from the “Toy Story” movies. Frankly, you could walk into this one without having seen the other four. “Lightyear” can be a lighter cousin to animated galactic entertainments like “Titan A.E.” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” which are self-contained adventures that also openly reference their influences. The Pixar animators are having a blast here winking at the classics. Buzz is gifted a robotic cat companion, Sox (Peter Sohn), who is meant to provide emotional comfort but can do a lot more, like crack complex formulas to achieve hyperspace. He speaks with a soothing yet monotone voice that sounds like a cute take on HAL 9000, the A.I. computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” When Buzz and Sox hurtle through a colorful, wormhole-like stretch of hyper speed, it’s another reference to the trippy Stanley Kubrick classic. The whole angle about losing years because of archaic relativity laws is taken straight out of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” especially the surprisingly moving experience of watching Buzz see his loved ones slip away. Alisha marries her girlfriend and they raise a daughter, all the while leaving messages for Buzz, in each one looking older. 

The second and third acts turn “Lightyear” into a rather muscular action movie as Buzz drops back into a new era where invading robots have taken over the planet and are threatening the now thriving community that sprouted of the original ship. To make it through, Buzz and Sox make contact with a gang of armed rebels led by Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s now grown daughter who looks like a family-friendly version of a Ridley Scott or James Cameron action hero. The straight-arrowed Buzz has to work hard at getting used to Izzy’s comrades, including ex-con Darby Steel (Dale Soules) and total coward Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi). They all look like rejects from an “Alien” movie, even the robot with jaws drawn in chalk who can’t read a map. You can sense director Angus MacLane truly loves these characters when throwing them into funny, suspenseful moments involving giant insects and red prisoner tubes. One of the best jokes finds Buzz discovering that in the far future, we will be eating sandwiches with the meat slapped on the outside. The action soon ratchets up with the appearance of Zurg (James Brolin), Buzz’s great enemy stomping around in a dark robot suit. We first met his action figure version in “Toy Story 2,” here we get the whole, grand backstory.

When ranked next to recent Pixar films like “Soul” and this year’s great “Turning Red,” a movie like “Lightyear” reminds us the studio is capable of making a brisk kind of escapism. And even as a space adventure with plenty of sequences involving flying ships and crash landings, the movie isn’t without its deeper insights. Buzz, who in the “Toy Story” movies (where he was voiced by Tim Allen), was always the disciplined soldier, has to learn in this movie to listen to others. He isn’t always right and his dogged determination can blind him to other matters, such as the importance of enjoying the time we have with those we care about. There’s a typical phrase the more cynical commentators tend to use that says, “The sequel we didn’t ask for.” Maybe a Buzz Lightyear origin story wasn’t something we’ve been begging for as an audience, yet it’s a good thing its creators decided to go for it. 

Lightyear” releases June 17 in theaters nationwide.