Whether it’s a film about a rat who dreams of becoming a French chef or a teenage girl who becomes a giant red panda when she’s excited, Pixar makes it look easy to create great films, no matter how wild the premise.
Lightyear might offer the studio’s most complicated setup yet, chronicling an early adventure of Buzz Lightyear, the sci-fi hero of a film that only existed in the Toy Story franchise until now, and that inspired the talking toy of the same name in that franchise. To put it another way, Lightyear is (essentially) the film the Buzz Lightyear toy in Toy Story is based on, brought into the real world for the rest of us to see.
Sure, its one-sentence pitch might seem confusingly meta on the surface, but like so many other Pixar films before it, once you dive into Lightyearthe film has no trouble immersing you in its fantastic world with a clever adventure that will entertain audiences of just about any age.
Science, meet emotion
Finding Dory co-director Angus MacLane helms Lightyear from a story penned by MacLane, Matthew Aldrich (Coco), and Jason Headley (Onward), with Marvel Cinematic Universe star Chris Evans voicing the titular space explorer with an affinity for narrating his every action. The film finds Buzz and the crew of his exploration vessel marooned on a hostile planet where they must attempt to create a new fuel source to escape. Buzz soon discovers that the effects of time dilation cause years to pass on the colony each time he tests the hyperspace fuel developed by the colony. Forced to watch his friends grow older as he attempts to save the colony, Buzz eventually faces a new challenge when he returns from a test to find the colony under attack from a robot army.
It’s a premise that feels surprisingly mature for an animated, all-ages feature — not just in the emotional ramifications of Buzz’s predicament, but in the “science” element of its sci-fi theme, too. While it doesn’t get too deep into the technical brambles of time dilation and hyperspace travel, Lightyear does just enough to sell that aspect of its narrative set-up to make it work for kids and adults alike, which is no easy feat when you’re dealing with concepts borrowed from the theory of relativity.
And although it doesn’t deliver the emotional gut-punch of the last few Toy Story films or prior Pixar films like Up or Inside Out, Lightyear offers plenty of powerful, dramatic moments, too. In addition to having great characters, Pixar films have always had a knack for heavy emotional beats (and, some might argue, can be a bit too manipulative in that department), but Lightyear strikes a great balance between giving its characters depth, heart, and emotional stakes in their world, while simultaneously preventing the action and adventure in the story from getting bogged down in processing oversized feelings.
Being able to sympathize with the characters — even animated ones — without necessarily pitying them is a tough line to walk, but Lightyear does so gracefully throughout Buzz’s wild adventure, and the film feels more light and accessible than some of its Pixar peers because of it.
Lightyear also feels like the closest Pixar has come to a mainstream, sci-fi action feature, too. Things move at a quick pace in Lightyearand the film’s willingness to embrace the tropes of both classic sci-fi and modern, action-oriented entries in the genre give the goings-on a familiar sense of excitement. Buzz is a space hero from the pulp era careening through a modern sci-fi adventure, and Lightyear does a nice job of squeezing the potential out of every element the genre offers.
Of course, it helps that the film’s lead character is voiced by one of the most popular actors in the genre, and Evans does a wonderful job of making Buzz sound like a live-action hero in every way. Tim Allen’s performance as the toy version of Buzz in the Toy Story films is iconic, certainly, but there was always an over-the-top edge to it that never let you forget the character was a toy. That flourish isn’t present in Evans’ voice performance, and that — along with his ability to make just about anything sound inspiring, honed from years of portraying Marvel’s Captain America — keeps Buzz relatable and interesting as a “real” character (albeit animated) no matter what’s going on around him.
Evans’ fine performance in Lightyear is also supported by fellow cast members Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee), Taika Waititi (Our Flag Means Death), and Dale Soules (Orange is the New Black), who portray the trio of misfit trainees Buzz is forced to rely on. Palmer in particular delivers a standout performance as the granddaughter of Buzz’s best friend, who struggles to live up to her grandmother’s legacy in Buzz’s eyes and those of the colony.
While Lightyear feels like a film that can stand on its own, it still manages to pack in plenty of nods to the Toy Story franchise and the toy character fans know and love. The film is packed with both overt and subtle nods to Buzz’s toy alter ego — or perhaps it’s the other way around, given the retroactive relationship Pixar has established between the film and the toys. Either way, the film seems destined to elicit audible gasps from younger viewers each time Buzz utters one of his Toy Story catchphrases, reveals the inspiration for one of the toy’s accessories, or references his Toy Story counterpart’s world in some form.
Fun, fast-paced, and smarter than you might expect, Lightyear is another feather in Pixar’s crowded hat when it comes to delivering a film that really does deliver on the promise of all-ages entertainment. Kids will likely find it easy to be swept into the action, humor, and self-aware bits of Lightyearbut adults will find no shortage of rewarding moments in the story, too.
Disney and Pixar’s Lightyear premieres June 17 in theaters. For more Buzz Lightyear and Pixar fun, check out our best movies on Disney+ list.