Lightyear‘s Pulpy Sci-Fi Adventure Successfully Applies the Pixar Formula

Movies Reviews Pixar
Lightyear‘s Pulpy Sci-Fi Adventure Successfully Applies the Pixar Formula

Pixar’s trade is in time. Its hardest-hitting stories push kids, and the parents that take them to the movies, to consider our impermanence. To see the sand trickling down our hourglasses. Their signature bittersweetness slips through alongside the coarse grains. Whether we’re watching the birth and death of lifelong love (Up, Finding Nemo, Coco), seeing fulfillment slip between fingers (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Soul) or putting away childish things (Inside Out, the Toy Story movies), we are beholden to Pixar’s brutal, confrontational chronology. Life is fleeting, even when that life belongs to a drawstring cowboy doll or a rat chef-puppeteer. Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’—now, it’s the future. The solo directorial debut of longtime Pixar animator Angus MacLane (he co-helmed Finding Dory with Andrew Stanton), Lightyear teleports this surefire poignancy into a pulpy sci-fi adventure. Its strapping hero flies full speed ahead when confronting the passage of time, accelerating to an enjoyable but decidedly finite success.

Opening text sets the tone and clears up the confusion of Lightyear’s own IP-forward making: This is the in-universe film that served as inspiration for Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear figure. Got it? No? This time he’s supposed to be a guy, made of hair and skin and bravado, instead of a toy made of plastic, electronics and bravado. Beyond that initial bit of corporate absurdity, Lightyear is, for the most part, easy to wrap your head around. It doesn’t give you time to mull its meta-premise over: We crash-land straight into Star Command’s Buzz (Chris Evans) and his BFF/commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) exploring an uninhabitable alien world.

They’re vine-cutting, insect-blasting throwbacks to huckster magazine covers; Amazing Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories already supplied all the adjectives I could ever need. The 105-minute movie zips at the same clip as a flashlight-lit, under-the-covers page-turner. Buzz, Alisha and their ship’s populous human payload are soon stranded through Buzz’s own doing, his myopic pride wrecking one engine and inspiring the pursuit of another’s solution. He needs to get to hyperspeed, but each attempt confronts him with an accelerated, genre-fied version of Pixar’s bread and butter: A four-minute spaceflight to the limits of speed is four years planet-side.

Buzz’s repeated attempts and failures thrill as we quickly grok the montage’s implications: As he fails, obsessed with single-handedly fixing his mistake and returning to the status quo, those around him keep on living. His frustrations stay fixed, his friends move forward. Alisha ages, finding a wife, having kids and then a granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer). Buzz clings to fading hope. Classic Pixar, reminding us that we’re all going to die. More than that, reminding us how easy it is to fritter away our fleeting time here. Its kiddie memento mori sells the complex emotional and temporal situation Buzz finds himself in, though the inner feelings of the space ranger remain at a karate-chopping arm’s length.

The perfectionist super-ranger (suffering, one imagines, from time dilation-induced PTSD) must learn to take life as it comes…nearly a century after he helped strand everyone on this alien world. MacLane and co-writer Jason Headley make this harrowing mission more palatable and trenchant through Lightyear’s focus on teamwork. To that end, Buzz’s team is essential. A grown-up Izzy, quick-to-quit Mo (Taika Waititi) and geriatric parolee Darby (Dale Soules) are the requisite ragtag rookies to check Buzz’s arrogance. The unlikely group of amiable screw-ups must save the planet’s human population and the aimless soul of one Standard-Issue White Male Hero.

To that end, Evans is good at what he needs to do, which is pretty much what he needed to do as Captain America: Be an uppity stick-in-the-mud hero the others can play off of. Buzz is historically a stodgy doofus, though this iteration lacks a maddened Tom Hanks to bring him back to reality. Instead he has a few undercooked yet harmless companions in Izzy, who gets a little “living up to your family” arc, and the simple goofballs Mo and Darby. Buzz isn’t the most interesting guy and his arc is fully telegraphed, so you wish those surrounding him completely benefitted from some of the story’s more community-minded moments, but the performers acquit themselves well even when the movie flicks on the autopilot.

The real key to the team is Buzz’s robo-kitty therapy companion, Sox (Peter Sohn). Pixar has perfected near-human humor, the simple language misunderstandings, surprises and literalizations that play for all ages. Sox’s spritely ‘bot provides constant comic relief that’s equal parts C-3PO over-formality, R2-D2 usefulness and housepet familiarity. More than any of the human characters, Sox cuts through Lightyear’s solid, straightfaced sci-fi in ways that don’t undermine its genre. Sox isn’t winking at the audience, ashamed of his narrative situation like so many characters in so many blockbusters. He’s part of the world, cute and silly and completely winning. Lightyear isn’t fully free of knowing nods (that action figure’s catchphrases and features had to come from somewhere), but its gestures to the past don’t hamstring its future.

Lightyear’s Star Wars allusions—which adapt Colin Cantwell’s retro pseudo-dogfighter ship designs, its broad Darth Bad Guy (James Brolin’s Emperor Zurg) and laser swords—are spot-on without being devotional. MacLane films with an eye for an era’s aesthetic. The domed space colony blends the alt-history realism of For All Mankind with a technicolor Frank R. Paul-esque futurism. It’s all enhanced by the same dedication to legible lighting and landscaping that makes every Pixar film feel like the real world seen through a magical filter. The vastness of space, the fragility of the technology required to survive and navigate it, the compelling beauty of its unknown—it’s all communicated through detailed, delectable animation. Blocky-rubber characters pop from granulated, tactile environments. Alongside Michael Giacchino’s fanfare-filled score, these design choices are as strikingly pulpy as the movie’s lightspeed-quick pace. They make even the most obvious detours tolerable.

What they can’t help is the film’s main twist, which is probably too weird and heady for most kids to follow, though just scientifically complex enough for eager adult nerds to debate. It’s intertwined with the film’s themes, complicating its sometimes-hokey messaging with a heaping helping of gravitas. Or, at least, it tries to. It doesn’t hit nearly as hard as it should, because you’ll be setting up illustrative diagrams in order to figure it out. Some parents fear talking to their kids about sex, but trying to explain Einsteinian relativistic physics sounds far worse. But hey, our biggest movies (that are supposed to be for kids) span multiverses and quantum realms—I’d be happy to see more Heinlein than hokum in their animated equivalent.

With Lightyear, MacLane translates one of his favorite films, Star Wars, into the Pixar mold. Star Wars was George Lucas translating his favorite serial, Flash Gordon, into a spacefaring Kurosawa adventure. Flash Gordon was created as a Buck Rogers knock-off, itself translating the ideas of Buckminster Fuller to the comic strip. This century of artistic genealogy demonstrates the longevity of powerful ideas and memorable aesthetics. As Lightyear brings up both sci-fi history and the history of its own company, mining the very origins of Pixar, it sees the auteurish animation house take a new genre past the limits of homage. But the film also establishes itself as a step in an endless progression of creative collage, a historical marker built to augment its inspirations and carry them towards a future movie. Lightyear is a beautiful starship with precious genre cargo, functional and direct in its simple mission to carry on.

Director: Angus MacLane
Writer: Jason Headley, Angus MacLane
Starring: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, James Brolin, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Uzo Aduba, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Release Date: June 17, 2022

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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