Lightyear Review: Pixar's Breathtaking Sci-Fi Spectacle Is Far More Than a Toy Story Origin

"In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. This is that movie." The start of Lightyear, Pixar's latest outing, lays the groundwork for what the sci-fi film is much more effectively than most of the movie's marketing. It sets the tone for what the next two hours will bring, essentially billing Lightyear as Andy's Star Wars: A New Hope, a film that really existed for the lead human of Toy Story and made him fall in love with its lead character so deeply that all he wanted was his action figure. That's a tall order, giving a movie a Star Wars-level hype in its opening seconds, but Lightyear more than lives up to those expectations. In many ways, it exceeds them. This isn't just a great Pixar film; Lightyear is one of the best sci-fi movies in years.

Lightyear focuses on a very different version of Buzz than we're used to seeing in the Toy Story films, this time voiced by Captain America stalwart Chris Evans, who instantly proves the perfect choice to give Buzz the sincerity and drive he needs for a story like this. Leading a Space Ranger mission to search for life on a far away planet, Buzz and his commanding officer, Alisha (Uzo Aduba) venture out from their massive spacecraft to scan the environment. Things go wrong and Buzz ends up crashing their ship while trying to be the hero. This strands the entire population of the craft on the strange planet, where they need to find a reliable hyperspace fuel source to return home. The trials for this fuel, paired with Buzz's persistence to "finish the mission," see the world fast-forward more than 60 years while Buzz stays the same age, forcing him to reckon with the decisions he has made as he continues his search for a way home.

The bulk of the story takes place years after Alisha and all of Buzz's Space Ranger friends have passed on. When a robot army, led by Zurg, invades the planet, Buzz ends up with a band of misfits who try to save the entire space station. The group's leader is none other than Alisha's granddaughter, Izzy, voiced by Keke Palmer. Through her, Buzz still has a connection to his best friend and Space Ranger past, but is simultaneously confronted with the past that his stubbornness allowed him to lose.

There's way more to unpack in Lightyear than you might think going in, especially since it's a prequel of sorts to a behemoth IP like Toy Story. This could have easily been a cash-grab for Disney and Pixar, designed to sell the mess out of Buzz Lightyear toys just as schools are letting out for the summer. But director Angus MacLane cares too deeply about this story, this genre, and this character to let it be even the slightest bit forgettable. 

The film tugs at those familiar Pixar heartstrings and tells a profound story about a man at the intersection of his past, present, and future. Regrets collide with reality as Buzz slowly learns to see the world around him for what it is, not what it might have been. This entire narrative gets sent into overdrive at the start of the third act with a massive reveal that I dare not spoil, but it's an incredibly satisfying moment for fans of Buzz Lightyear both new and old.

Buzz is undoubtedly the star of the film, but he's surrounded by absolute scene-stealers every step of the way. Sox, his robot feline companion, will be the most talked-about sidekick since Baby Yoda burst onto the scene in 2019. Every joke and bit involving Sox lands with ease and gut-busting laughter — actor Peter Sohn absolutely kills it. Taika Waititi also gets one of the best roles of his career and Mo Morrison, a clumsy "quitter" with a fascination for pens.

The story, emotion, and humor of Lightyear are up to par with Pixar's best offerings, which should be the expectation for the award-winning studio at this point. Where this film sets itself apart is in its visual display. Lightyear is truly breathtaking to look at. This is the type of movie that gets released every once in a while that makes you think to yourself, "Wait, animation can do that?!" It tests the boundaries of animation as a whole, introducing the medium to IMAX cameras and taking Pixar into bolder new directions than it has ever gone before. Suggesting that you see something "on the biggest screen possible" has become an overused phrase over the last year, but I believe it was created for a movie like Lightyear. You want to see as much of it as humanly possible. From the beads of sweat on Buzz's face as he struggles to course-correct a ship to the stunning horizons on-planet, there isn't a pixel of Lightyear that doesn't command your full attention.

Lightyear could absolutely work as an original title — Toy Story really isn't necessary to make the tale or characters enjoyable. But the connection is used about as perfectly as it could be. There are a few lines that harken back to Buzz's catchphrases in Toy Story, but the story never leans on the adventures in Andy's room. Instead, it offers the chance to unpack a much more interesting version of the deeply human toy that has been in our lives for nearly 30 years. Lightyear aims for infinity and more than delivers, taking us a little further beyond what we'd expected.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Lightyear arrives in theaters on June 17th.