Lightyear Review: The Film Makes No Effort To Break Away The Familiar Disney Constellation

A still from Lightyear. (courtesy: Pixar)

Cast: Chris Evans, James Broli, Efren Ramirez, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Taika Waititi, Uzo Aduba, Tim Peake and Bill Hader

Director: Angus MacLane

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of 5)

Fun while it lasts but disappointingly predictable for the most part, Lightyear makes no effort to break away the familiar Disney constellation and reach for new dimensions

The movie stays largely within the broad Pixar spectrum, give or take a handful of surprises and at least one memorable addition, a robotic cat that steals the show as the titular character’s all-weather companion and is certain to unleash a merchandising frenzy that could rival the one that followed the release of Toy Story in 1995.

Directed by Angus MacLane (also the writer of the screenplay with Jason Headley), Lightyear is supposedly a Toy Story spin-off. It actually has little to do with the universe that Andy Davis inhabited. Lightyear is, as a title card tells us upfront, a 1995 movie that introduced Andy to the cocky space ranger and led to his receiving the astronaut toy as a birthday gift.

Fabulous computer animation is the least that one expects in a Pixar movie. The voice cast, too, is as formidable as ever with Chris Evans doing well enough as Buzz Lightyear’s voice for us not to miss Tim Allen. And the plot is familiar enough to instantly let the audiences warm to the intergalactic adventures of the hero and his mates.

Lightyear isn’t actually building upon story that has been told before. It creates its own universe and throws in a fresh bunch of supporting characters. The screenwriters are, therefore, free to give full rein to their imagination and not get bogged down by small matters like continuity and cross-referencing

The traits that define the character of Buzz Lightyear do, however, recall his obdurate streak as the reason why he often leaps before he thinks and gets into situations that boomerang.

The story is narrated primarily in the form of a “mission log” that Lightyear records before, during and after the key events in his mission to find a way out of the planet that he is stranded on. That plot device imparts a sense of immediacy and subjectivity to the story. The perspective is Buzz Lightyear’s, but because it takes a wide sweep of encounters and exigencies into its embrace, it is never limiting.

But does that create a launchpad for a soaring, dizzying sci-fi ride? Not really, but Lightyear has all the trappings of an uncluttered crowd-pleaser if the crowd in question is about Andy’s age, either physically or at heart. The movie has its share of eye-popping action riding on space vessels, robots and space ranger exploits, a fair sprinkling of humour, and a few delicate moments that tug at the heartstrings.

The most notable among the last-mentioned narrative component has Buzz Lightyear’s commander and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Voice of Uzo Aduba) leave a message for her always-absent mate who watches it long after she has passed on. Buzz has missed many of the landmarks of Alisha’s life because of his unrelenting and unsuccessful forays in quest of hyperspace fuel to propel the spaceship that will take him home.

Because of “time dilation”, four years elapse on T’kana Prime after every hyperspace fuel test that Buzz attempts. That means he isn’t around when the planet and those that live on it leap forward chronologically and undergo major changes.

So, what we have here is a classic Disney hero. He overreaches and falters and then repents his actions and seeks redemption. There are to boot rookies who have a thing or two to prove and a villain whose back story is as much about the past as about the future.

Lightyear kicks off on a planet that seems habitable. It turns out that it is swarming with hostile lifeforms – sentient killer foliage and exceedingly aggressive bugs, among other dangers – that can make survival extremely difficult.

Lightyear, Hawthorne and the rookie Featheringhanstan (Bill Hader) retreat to their ship, which is soon grounded because Buzz flies into a rockface in attempt to escape from the planet. From here on, Captain Lightyear has his job cut out: having got the crew into big trouble, he takes it upon himself to be their savior. His acts of heroism stem more from desperation than well chalked out strategies and result in more setbacks.

Sox the robotic feline upstages everyone else in Lightyear and that at times includes Buzz himself. Created to be Lightyear’s companion and assistant, Sox is a troubleshooter extraordinaire, a lovable creature whose survival instincts are put to the test in one highly hazardous outer-space situation that is bound to elicit gasps of shock from the audience. But at all other times, Sox is the one in control even as the others grope for answers.

The others include Mo Morrison (voice of Taika Waititi), a new clueless recruit whose pen gets more play than it deserves, and Darby Steele (Dale Soules), an elderly convict on parole. The two do get their place under the stars, but never have the kind of space that Sox has.

It is a completely different story for Izzy (the voice of Keke Palmer conveys both resolve and vulnerability), who must surmount her fear of space and be of assistance to Buzz Lightyear as the latter battles life-threatening challenges thrown at him by Emperor Zurg ( James Brolin). More important, she has the Hawthorne legacy to worry about and that keeps Izzy on her toes.

The cause of diversity is obviously well served by Alisha Hawthorne. She is Black and so obviously is her granddaughter Izzy. It is rare for a spaceman, even less a spacewoman, to be African American despite what Hidden Figures (2016) revealed to the world.

Lightyear, as the whole world knows by now, also slips in a same-sex kiss. Though the lip lock is no more than a mere flash, it is a Pixar breakthrough that will go down in history. It is another matter that the movie itself, consistently diverting but a touch antiquated in terms of what it crams into the plot, isn’t a departure from norm in most other respects.

Lightyear is content to play out within a limited bandwidth and, therefore, fails to soar in the direction of exciting new frontiers.


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