If you’re planning to make a prequel to one of the biggest animation franchises out there, featuring a character that many people have come to know and love, you have to make damn sure you don’t fumble the delivery because expectations can’t be anything but stratospheric.
Fortunately, Lightyear which pivots on the inspired idea that this is the movie that impels Andy to get a Buzz Lightyear all the way back in the first Toy Story film (1995), manages to meet that infinity and beyond anticipation, delivering up an origin tale that is in fact not really an origin tale at all if you consider that Buzz the person (voiced by Chris Evans) and the toy are two entirely different characters.
Still, for the purposes of Lightyear they are one and the same because this film is after all an explanation for why Buzz the toy started off his brilliantly complex existential journey from super toy to one of the gang (albeit a super important part along with Woody) as someone very much convinced of his own Space Ranger greatness.
Sure, Buzz the toy was programmed with many of the attributes of Buzz the person but since you cannot squeeze an entire human being worth and value into one toy, no matter how gloriously good he may be, it stands to reason that the toy would hit only certain high notes, the ones that make for a captivating plaything, and not the full complexity of the original character.
Which is why, quite apart from the cleverly cute idea of retconning Lightyear into the Toy Story canon, we need this delightful piece of feature length animation because it widens the scope of who Buzz to the point where you can well understand why Andy wanted to have as a toy so badly.
Buzz is, so Lightyear makes it engagingly clear, is a pretty cool guy, a flawed character, who like the toy we have come to know and love, has delusions of grandeur but is at heart a decent, caring guy who does some of the recklessly grandiose stuff he does because he loves his friends and he is devoted to the idea of honour and duty and never giving up in the space of a challenge.
In fact, so well does Lightyear, directed by Buzz devotee and in-house Pixar expert on the character, Angus MacLane, draw out who Buzz is at heart, that the reverse journey of Buzz from deluded toy to genuinely great hero of the toyroom makes sense because he ends up embodying much of what was present in Buzz the man in a movie that gives the character plenty of appealing room to grow.
This was of course stripped out for the simplicity of the commercial product Buzz becomes and so, it’s fascinating, heartwarming and downright funny at times to see how full, flawed and real Buzz is in “real life”.
In the movie, Buzz is a gung-ho member of Space Command, a Space Ranger who avowedly believes in its good and upright ideals and who is fiercely loyal to those with whom he is exploring the galaxy in a ship that, and here you must agree with Buzz, does in fact look like a turnip.
This running joke is part of the strong comic thread running through Lightyear which like many Pixar films deftly and winningly balances the riotously silly with the poignantly intense as Buzz and his accidental group of heroes – eager but untrained Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) who has an hilarious fascination for the pen compartment of the Space Ranger suit, acerbic ex-con Darby Steel (Dale Soules) and Buzz’s robotic cat companion, Sox (Peter Sohn) who is his own brand of likably weird – set out to defend their present reality from someone eager to make it otherwise.
Going to deeply into what the core of the narrative is to venture too far into spoiler territory, however delightfully and fulsomely animated it may be, but suffice to say that when Buzz sets off to fix a mistake he’s made after they landed on an unknown world and things went awry, his actual four-minute test flight designed to get everyone home, turns into a 62 year lifetime back on the planet.
Buzz may take it all a bit too seriously at times – that part is very much evident in the toy who also gets Buzz the man’s penchant for narrating mission logs as they happen, his bounciness and his trenchant self-belief (fixed by the end) that he can do everything alone; spoiler alert, he can’t – but he is at his core a very good and decent man and every thing he does in the film, emotionally wrenching unintended consequences and all, comes from a very good place.
It’s this innate sense of goodness, duty and decency that drives the momentum of the emotionally resonant joy that is Lightyear.
It’s a film that has plenty of slapstick and verbally comic athleticism, but also the tremendous existential pain of Buzz having to watch all his contemporaries, now 62 years older than he is, live rich and full lives while he is barely hours older, and MacLane, who co-wrote the immensely affecting screenplay with Jason Headley, also keeps this very much in mind throughout the film which had to wrestle with the central idea of whether Buzz not getting people home almost a century older is a failure that should be righted or a reality he simply needs to accept.
You can almost watch the tussle on beautifully animated Buzz’s face – his hair in the wind is a thing of animated beauty that is worth the price of admission; kidding but damn it’s hypnotically gripping (in fact all the animation is photo-realistically rich and immersively wonderful) – as he has to make some huge existential decisions that will have a direct impact on his new friends.
It’s an intensely affecting emotional arc that is not lessened one bit by the appealing flippancy that surrounds it, testament once again that the superlative skill and maturity that Pixar brings to their animation which, like life itself, is a mix of the good and the bad, the obvious and the fiendishly, heartrendingly challenging.
Lightyear is a superbly good origin tale, not simply we can see why Buzz the toy was initially how he is, but because it’s swashbuckling, ’50s movie serial sense of fun and high stakes, beautifully captures what it means to belong and to lose that sense of connection, to fight for one ideal only to find the truth is another has taken its place thanks to the passage of time, and to fight for what matters when, of course, you finally, and affectingly figure out what that is.