Since its initial appearance in 1995 as the very first entirely computer-animated feature film, the beloved Toy Story has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of children across the globe. This also happened to be the debut film from a little-known animation studio at the time that went by the name of Pixar, who would go on to become an animation powerhouse through their standalone works and collaborations with Disney. Starring the voice talents of Tom Hanks as the cowboy-toy Woody alongside Tim Allen as the headstrong and heroic space ranger, Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story resulted in numerous sequels, critically-acclaimed videogames, and a mountain of merchandise. Admittedly, I grew up playing with a battered Woody plush and voiced Buzz Lightyear action figure, constantly imitating scenes from the first two films.
If you didn’t grow up watching Toy Story, did you really have a childhood?
With the main series seemingly concluding with Toy Story 4 and human protagonist Andy all grown-up, what else was left to explore in the Toy Story universe? Origin stories. Of course each of the series’ beloved toys has an origin, and this concept is the direct inspiration for the newest, biggest and boldest Toy Story film to date: LIGHTYEAR. This Buzz Lightyear origin story immediately makes it very clear that this is the movie that inspired the toy and offers plenty for both series newcomers and fans who grew up alongside Andy. So it’s time to go “to infinity… and beyond!” in Buzz Lightyear’s very first solo space adventure.
WARNING: some minor plot spoilers ahead.
Landing safely on a hostile alien planet, Commander Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), the daring and headstrong leader of the Space Rangers, embarks on yet another mission to investigate an unexplored corner of the universe. Much to his dismay, Buzz is not alone in space… as he is soon accompanied by his beloved friend and fellow Space Ranger, Commander Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), and the overly-enthusiastic Rookie Featheringhamstan (Bill Heder). After an attempt to evacuate from the planet while being attacked, Buzz goes it alone and pilots their spacecraft safely into… a cliff. This simple mistake leaves the crew and thousands of hibernating civilians trapped on a desolate planet with no way home.
Now stranded on a deadly new world in the expanse of the universe, the colony immediately establish a new civilisation while attempting to refine an unstable fuel source that also happens to be their ticket out: a lightspeed crystal. The fate of the colony rests upon the shoulders of Commander Buzz Lightyear, who got them into this mess, and will do everything possible to get them out of it. With the lightspeed crystal constructed, Buzz launches off into space in his very first test flight, only to return to the planet and find that something very peculiar happened while he was away…
The touching relationship between Lightyear and Hawthorne at times feels reminiscent of UP.
Without giving too much away, the plot to LIGHTYEAR is far more clever than the generic whacky space adventure one might come to expect. By adding elements of theoretical physics that sci-fi nerds will truly appreciate, and a highly emotive sub-plot, the film offers a wide variety of story that can be appreciated by viewers of all ages.
Characters & Direction
Series fans have come to know and love the voice of Tim Allen, who played Buzz in the earlier films, so it might come as a surprise to hear the voice of Chris Evans as the beloved space commander. While it may seem slightly jarring at first, Evans portrays Lightyear with powerful emotion, a foolhardy attitude, and an entirely convincing performance from beginning to end. This is accompanied by his rag-tag band of companions, which offer not only cooperation and character development, but plenty of banter and comedic relief throughout, which only occasionally feels forced. The cast consists of a wide variety of voice talents, including the likes of favourites like Taika Waititi and James Brolin.
This unlikely crew make for an interesting dynamic of hopelessness and comedy.
There are however moments where LIGHTYEAR feels a tad on the nose, especially when coming to terms with the concept of failure. This is a resounding theme throughout the film, being able to grow from one’s failures and continue the mission with renewed vigor. The majority of the film is a predictable comedy of errors – if something can go wrong, it almost certainly will. This does become tedious to the point where it’s almost always expected something will go wrong, and the only saving grace in these moments is its use of comedy.
A hero’s best friend – Sox adds a touch of childlike joy to the film.
Thankfully, the standout character throughout the film is none other than Sox (Peter Sohn), an animatronic robotic companion feline initially commissioned as an emotional support animal for Commander Lightyear. Though quite obviously utilised as the comedic relief, Sox brings an element of silliness to a film that might otherwise just be a generic space adventure. With an awkwardly stilted gait, unbroken gaze, and an array of skills resembling that of a kitty swiss army knife, this character will no doubt be a favourite for both the children and the adults in the audience. Like the confetti Sox coughs up, every single scene adds a touch of childlike joy.
As an outer space sci-fi adventure, viewers might expect to see alien worlds full of bright colour and absurdly imaginitive designs. Strangely, this is not the case at all for LIGHTYEAR, as the planet on which it is set is about as bleak and barren as it could possibly get. Natural environments are not at all the emphasis of LIGHTYEAR’s visuals, as there’s far more of a focus on futuristic technology, spacecraft, and robotics. Not quite the visual choice I was expecting for a children’s movie, as it mostly opts for a more realistic sci-fi approach. With vehicles, space ships, and weapons aplenty, LIGHTYEAR couldn’t be any further from the visual style of the Toy Story franchise.
Am I watching a Pixar film, or is this a scene from Alien?
That is until you take a closer look at the characters, with an unsurpassed level of detailed animation that can only be that of modern Pixar films. Details on the characters’ clothing, their space suits, and the lighting and reflections is at times jaw-droppingly stunning. There were many moments where I’d wished the movie would pause completely to allow viewers to fully appreciate the level of great detail that has gone into its lighting and atmosphere. Fans of space travel and out-of-this-world sequences will not be disappointed by the impressive visuals crafted by Pixar in Buzz’s first truly sci-fi outing.
Detailed reflections and moody lighting are used to great effect in the film’s visuals.
Where the original’s charming score can be accredited to beloved American Singer-Songwriter and composer, Randy Newman, LIGHTYEAR takes a different approach with a soundtrack that is bigger and brassier than ever. Back again for his seventh Disney Pixar collaboration is the phenomenal fan favourite, Michael Giacchino, who brought us the critically-acclaimed music of The Incredibles and UP amongst many other brilliant animated films. Compositions for the main Toy Story series are heart-warming, acoustic and lyrical, but LIGHTYEAR instead launches off in the complete opposite direction.
The film’s musical set pieces are huge, featuring a massive orchestra with a sound that could be only suited to an epic space adventure. This contrasts with reflective, ambient, and atmospheric tracks during emotive scenes, making it even more difficult to hold back the tears. Giacchino has done an exceptional job in creating a sound that is so unlike its source material, yet still seems perfectly fitting.
The title track, “Mission Perpetual”, is a perfect example of Giacchino’s epic sound.
Voice acting, punchy sound effects, and the deep ambience of space all seem perfectly balanced across the entire audio experience of LIGHTYEAR. Throughout the film, there is never a single moment where viewers will struggle to hear lines of dialogue or recoil at excessively noisy blasts, making it perfectly catered towards a younger audience with sensitive eardrums.
Despite the whimsical and charming nature of its predecessors, LIGHTYEAR doesn’t hesitate to take this cherished childhood character in a unique direction of its own. Where there are certainly homages to Toy Story through characters and dialogue, Buzz’s first sci-fi outing crafts a captivating space adventure that holds up impressively as a standalone viewing experience. Children who grew up watching Toy Story will be thrilled to experience familiar characters in an entirely new setting, while still offering a captivating cast for newcomers to the series. As one of the most respected animation studios in history, Pixar have successfully gone to infinity and beyond all expectations in this thrilling original story.
So, why should you watch it?
- Great way to experience a beloved character in a new and fresh setting.
- Plenty of loveable characters (especially Sox) with comedy scattered throughout.
- Story that offers something appealing to viewers of all ages.
- Michael Giacchino nails an epic sci-fi score.
- Stunningly detailed lighting and reflections.
But why shouldn’t you watch it?
- Lacking the whimsical charm of the Toy Story series.
- Predictable comedy of errors can become slightly tedious.
- Some darker scenes that may frighten very young viewers.
A preview screening was kindly provided by Disney Australia for the purpose of this review.
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