‘Lightyear’: He’s not a toy, he’s a space ranger in film offering stunning animation and thoughtful messages

A relatively minor Pixar effort starring Buzz from ‘Toy Story’ nevertheless succeeds as escapist summer entertainment for the family.

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“Lightyear” tells the story of the space ranger (voice of Chris Evans) who would someday inspire an action figure, and his interstellar heroics with a robotic cat by his side.

Disney/Pixar

What we need to keep in mind is that the Buzz Lightyear we’ve come to know and love in all the “Toy Story” movies isn’t the “real” Buzz; it’s an action figure toy based on a popular movie character. Thus, we can’t call “Lightyear” a prequel, as it’s more of a — well, the title card of the movie explains it:

“In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”

Ah! Got it. This is the story of the “real” Buzz Lightyear! What we’re watching is the movie Andy watched, and then Andy got a Buzz Lightyear action figure, and the rest is animated movie history. Hold on, though: That would mean “Lightyear” would have been released BEFORE the events of “Toy Story,” so it IS kind of a prequel, and also, why is the animation in this movie so stunning and vibrant and mind-blowing? Shouldn’t it look more 1990s?

‘Lightyear’

Untitled

Disney and Pixar present a film directed by Angus MacLane and written by MacLane and Jason Headley. Rated PG (for action/peril). Running time: 105 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

Oh, stop it, me. This is a high-concept and yes, meta, film that springs from a clever premise and delivers wholesome, energetic, positive-messaging entertainment — even if there are some plot developments straight out of “Interstellar” meets “Back to the Future” that will sail above the heads of the little ones. When we’re able to set aside some of the nagging questions, e.g., why was it necessary to replace Tim Allen with Chris Evans as the voice of Buzz (it wasn’t), we can settle in and enjoy “Lightyear” as a relatively minor Pixar effort that nevertheless succeeds as escapist summer entertainment for the family. (Just think: Kids who saw the original “Toy Story” in 1995 are old enough to have preschoolers — or teenagers — of their own!)

Directed with zippy flash by Angus MacLane (“Finding Dory”) from a screenplay by MacLane and Jason Headley (“Onward”), “Lightyear” opens with the impossibly square-jawed and supremely self-confident Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear making a rare mistake that results in Buzz, his commanding officer and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and their entire crew marooned on a desolate and dangerous planet. If Buzz can figure out a way to reach hyper-speed, he’ll be able to bring everyone home, but he falls short in test flight after test flight after test flight. Each of these attempts soaks up only a few minutes of Buzz’s time — but when he returns to base, another four years has passed on the planet’s surface. This leads to a touching, “Up”-inspired sequence in which we see Alisha’s life pass before Buzz’s eyes, from Alisha’s romance and marriage to a female crew member, having a son and eventually a granddaughter before she passes away of old age. Damn you, Pixar, you’ve delivered another multi-tissue moment.

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Buzz’s best friend Alisha (voice of Uso Aduba) is stranded with him on a dangerous planet.

Disney/Pixar

Buzz has lost the only true friend he’s ever had, but at least Alisha gave him the next best thing to a human sidekick in a robotic cat named Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), who can perform all sorts of computerized wizardry but is mainly onboard to melt our hearts with his big eyes and cute comments and undying loyalty to Buzz. (It would make sense for a movie cat to be named Sox in 1995, given that the Clintons had a cat named Socks in the White House at the time.) In classic loner anti-hero fashion, Buzz keeps telling us (he narrates his own adventures) that he doesn’t need anybody’s help and he can manage just fine on his own, which of course sets the table for Important Life Lessons about how we all need help and it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for it. Yay, Pixar messaging!

Circumstances — loud, colorful, action-packed circumstances — lead to Buzz reluctantly teaming up with a rag-tag bunch of wannabe Space Rangers, including the hapless and bumbling Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi); the crusty old explosives and weapons expert (and ex-con) Darby Steel (Dale Soules), and Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer),who has spent her whole life dreaming of becoming a legendary Ranger like her grandmother and Buzz, but there’s one small issue: She’s terrified of space. (Cue the messaging about overcoming your fears!) Even though I still say Tim Allen should be voicing Buzz, kudos to Chris Evans for playing off his own superhero image with some hilariously deadpan and occasionally empathetic voice work; Evans and Keke Palmer as Izzy do a wonderful job of creating a true mentor/protégé chemistry.

As Buzz and his new team do battle with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his robot army (it doesn’t really matter how we got there), “Lightyear” gets into some heavy metaphysical developments that will have your head spinning, but mostly it’s about the whiz-bang action and some nicely timed comedic quips and Buzz finally learning no man is an island, even when his adventures take him to, you know, infinity and beyond. Go Buzz! Your next adventure is just around the corner, and it all starts at Andy’s birthday party.

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