By Marc S. Sanders
It’s kind of neat to see the evolution of a classic film character when you are a fully aware adult. In 1995, I had no idea what the term Pixar meant, or knew the impact it would have with the Disney brand as a whole or on the cinematic landscape. Pixar is now as pioneering as Skywalker Sound or Industrial Light and Magic. There’s Pixar, and then there’s everything else. Back in ’95, I was age 23, and my intuition never perked up that I was watching a touchstone character like Buzz Lightyear who would become as grand today as Batman and Elvis turned out to be in an ever-changing pop culture lexicon. Buzz Lightyear is by far one of the company’s most inventive creations.
Jump to nearly thirty years later, with four Toy Story adventures, and endless amounts of merchandising the Space Ranger has been primed for a more personal adventure beyond the imagination of a young child possessing an action figure in his playroom. Lightyear tells of the adventure that leant to merchandising of the toy depicted in the Toy Story fictional world. (Try not to think too hardly on that description.)
Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is the eminent Space Ranger of Star Command, out to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and– STOP! That’s another franchise. When Captain Lightyear comes upon an unchartered planet, complications in unexpected science fiction adventure ensue. Buzz and the small colony living on his global spaceship are marooned on this planet with no immediate solution for getting off and returning to Earth, 4.2 billion light years away. Buzz makes it his mission to uncover a new kind of resource fuel that will eventually help the colony make its eventual return home. Yet, with each experimental try, the minutes he spends in his super speed orbits around the planet equate to years for the colony who have set up habitation below. His comrades on the ground below continue to age while Buzz does not.
I needed help with this picture. My wife had to explain the staple lesson that usually comes with each Pixar film that I just didn’t catch while watching Lightyear. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but the film reminds us to accept the hand dealt to us and appreciate what has come even if we never expected or planned on the circumstances in the first place. It’s a good lesson. I guess I just wish Lightyear made it a little clearer. There’s a lot of mud on the windshield that I needed to wipe away before I realized what the message was about.
Maybe I was not fair with this film. Tim Allen was not invited back to lend his recognizable voiceover to the character. I guess Pixar is insistent that he’s reserved only for the toy version of the character. Chris Evans is fine, mind you, and he doesn’t overdo it. Yet, I could not help but think Tim Allen would have been just as capable and even more entitled to voice the role yet again.
Perhaps I was thinking that if Pixar wanted to go in another animated direction with the character, it just seemed completely fruitless. How different could Lightyear be from the Toy Story films if the animated design is pretty similar in every frame? Honestly, it doesn’t look like a new kind of device. So that was a problem for me, as well. It wasn’t inventive enough. Maybe it’s time for a live action version of the space traveler. Imagine Chris Evans wearing a live action and tactile version of the famous astronaut costume with the colorful buttons. I still say that could work, and it’s what Disney/Pixar should have considered.
Maybe I’m getting bored with the time travel motif. Isn’t everyone doing that these days? Doesn’t it also seem like all our heroes are meeting their future selves and struggling to understand their current predicament? Lightyear hinges on these story developments, and when the moments arrive my eyes rolled in the back of my head. Time travel stories are very tricky for me to appreciate. Often, the narrative paints itself into a corner, unable to explain itself back correctly. Only two films that come to mind have worked their way out of it almost seamlessly – Back To The Future and 12 Monkeys.
So, while I love the lesson that Lightyear offers, the standard carbon copy plot outline left me unfocused at times.
The voiceover cast is well done with Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and James Brolin. The animation is gorgeous, most especially when Buzz is piloting his super jet around the planet’s sun. The atmosphere of the planet is fun when it becomes a nuisance with giant flying insects and vines that come alive to entangle the characters at any given moment.
Science Fiction can go to infinity and beyond with the directions it can take. There is absolutely no limit. With today’s technology in filmmaking and the endless resources that Disney provides, why didn’t the filmmakers try a little harder with Lightyear? Again, a live action interpretation would have allowed it to stand apart from the character’s prior Toy adventures, and some different avenues in space exploration would have opened a leaner and more entertaining story. If Star Trek can do it, Lightyear can do it too.
I think Pixar tried to go the route of Christopher Nolan, by way of Interstellar. However, Lightyear is designed for people of all ages where the brain of the show is in reminding us how to carry ourselves through life, and not to uncover the twists that a brilliant filmmaker like Nolan has become recognized for. I didn’t want to resolve a puzzle in fictional science. Lightyear is trying too hard to be to be brainy and thus we get distracted from its “The More You Know” lesson in self-effacement.