Lightyear Review: The Toy Story Spin-Off Boldly Goes Where Many A Sci-Fi Movie Has Gone Before

How does one go beyond (pardon the pun) the masterful "Toy Story" movies? The original 1995 film put Pixar on the map as not just a pioneer of CG animation, but as a hub for thoughtful, high-concept, character-driven storytelling. All of the following "Toy Story" movies would only strengthen that reputation for Pixar, bringing the series to new emotional, weepy heights. But now that the story of Andy and his lovable band of misfit toys has come to an end, there's only one direction that the "Toy Story" franchise can go: the stars.

"Lightyear" is a spin-off of sorts to the "Toy Story" movies, a sci-fi epic that follows the adventures of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on. Only it isn't really — this is a movie within the universe of "Toy Story," the blockbuster that, as the opening text reveals, would become a young Andy's favorite movie and inspire him to buy the Buzz Lightyear toy. But herein lies the first hiccup in the film's internal logic: "Lightyear" is an ambitious sci-fi throwback to pulpy adventures and speculative fiction that riffs on "Star Trek" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (the "Star Trek" energy is especially potent) — but no child in 1995 would name it their favorite movie. (The short-lived and extremely fun ABC/UPN TV series "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command," on the other hand, Andy and co. would've gobbled up.)

To put it simply, this is a movie for "Toy Story" adults — the people who grew up on the movies and now hold jobs and mortgages — not "Toy Story" children. And while that's perfectly fine (good, even!) it does start the movie off on a strange foot; the film's wrestling with legacy, the passage of time, and the fallacy of rugged individualism all land a little softer as you ponder: who is this for?

Shoot for the stars, land on the roof

The cynical answer is that "Lightyear" is for the movie buffs who grew up on "Toy Story" and want to see their favorite childhood characters act out their favorite sci-fi movies. The less cynical answer is that it's an opportunity for a budding filmmaker (Angus MacLane, making his directorial debut after years as an animator at Pixar) to show off his talents by making the sci-fi epic he has long aspired to make, nestled here within the cozy confines of an established franchise. The truth is that it's probably something in between the two — an ambitious riff on sci-fi classics that goes down a little easier in the capable hands of Pixar.

Chris Evans (doing a clipped, staccato delivery straight out of a William Shatner performance that only solidifies the "Star Trek" parallels) stars as Buzz Lightyear, a legendary Space Ranger whose one critical mistake results in his team getting stranded on a hostile alien planet 4.2 million light-years away from Earth. With their only means of returning home to Earth, a hyper-speed crystal that is extremely dangerous to engineer, destroyed, the crew of 1,000 decide to make the best of their situation and settle down on the planet — all except for Buzz. Wracked with guilt over his failure, Buzz throws himself into the task of testing out a new hyper-speed crystal that can bring them all back home. But the first test flight results in a time dilation: a four-minute test flight for Buzz is four years on the planet for everyone else.

That includes his friend and fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), who remains his most passionate supporter even as she settles down with the rest of the colony — finding a wife, having a child, growing old and content as Buzz stays the same, obsessed with testing out the crystal and "finishing the mission." Buzz gets so carried away with this mission that, before he knows it, decades have passed and Alisha and his former teammates are long dead. The planet he lands back on is now overrun by killer alien robots, with a scrappy team of junior cadets led by Alisha's spunky granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer, having a blast) and including the cowardly Mo (Taika Waititi, playing a very Waititi character) and wild-card felon Darby (Dale Soules, all gruff steel), his only hope for saving the colony.

All that and a robot cat

A man's debilitating obsession with "greatness" and legacy is the stuff that great filmmakers and great writers have long chewed on, and it gives "Lightyear" the kind of emotional depth that we've come to expect from a Pixar movie. The only thing is that it's nothing new: better sci-fi films such as "Ad Astra" have tread this space before. And, to an extent, so has the first "Toy Story" movie — in a way, the real Buzz Lightyear goes through effectively the same character arc as the toy Buzz does: getting his ego deflated and realizing the error of his lone-wolf ways, all in favor of embracing a new found family in all their flaws.

It's kind of funny that we get two versions of this arc, especially since the toy Buzz in "Toy Story" was created to lampoon the kind of hypermasculine heroes that were popular in '90s blockbusters — again, an internal logic discrepancy: why is toy Buzz on such an ego trip if his source material isn't like that at all?

In the end, it doesn't matter, because "Lightyear" is a perfectly fun time. The ensemble is wacky and lovable, and the robot cat that Buzz is gifted by Alisha, Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), is a surprising MVP of the movie — avoiding any potentially annoying pitfalls of such a gimmicky character by virtue of being freaking hilarious.

"Lightyear" may not reach the heights of the great sci-fi movies that it pays tribute to, or even the "Toy Story" movies themselves. But it's a visually impressive, escapist riff on the sci-fi epic that, at the very least, might become the favorite movie of some kid, somewhere.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10