Director – Angus MacLane – 2021 – US – Cert. PG – 107m
Stranded on a hostile planet, Buzz Lightyear sets out on a series of missions which eventually lead to his first confrontation with the evil Emperor Zurg – plays in the Annecy Animation Festival 2022 which is taking place in a 100% on-site edition this year right now as a Screening Event on Friday, June 17th, and opens in UK cinemas the same day.
A caption at the start explains that this was the favourite film of child protagonist Andy (from Pixar’s Toy Story franchise) and the reason he got a Buzz Lightyear toy in the first place. Other than that, though, this is a completely separate and self-enclosed film.
As the literal meaning of its title implies, Lightyear delivers a narrative that races through vast periods of time at a stretch, so that we and ace space pilot Buzz Lightyear (voice: Chris Evans) and his colleague Alisha Hawthorne (voice: Uzo Aduba) land their spaceship on an unexplored planet which turns out to be populated with hostile life-forms, specifically (1) plant tendrils which burst out of the planet’s surface and try to drag anything they can back under the ground and (2) giant, flying bugs.
Escaping from the creatures, the pair manage to get the ship to lift off despite the tendrils trying to hold them down, but Buzz, piloting the craft, is unable to get the necessary lift, grazes a rock face as the ship is gaining height and crash lands the ship. They are then stranded for a year during which they build defences to keep the hostile alien life out.
Buzz can save the situation if he can pilot a smaller, one-man ship through hyperspace. However, making the jump proves difficult because the fuel mixture is notoriously unstable. Although both he and Alisha believe him the only person who can do the task, he makes several failed attempts. What’s more, his hyperspace jump attempts, while lasting only a few minutes for him, last several years from everyone on the planet, so each time he returns he finds Alisha that bit older – partnered with a woman, having kids, her kids grown up, until eventually, she’s dead and gone.
During Buzz’s many absences of over 62 years, his robot cat Sox (voice: Peter Sohn) has been working on the fuel mixture problem and found a solution, so Buzz decides to try that out on his next hyperspace jump attempt. Grounded by the new base commander Burnside (voice: Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who won’t listen to him since he doesn’t think he has the slightest chance of success, Buzz, with Sox in tow, steals a ship to undertake the flight.
The mixture works, but on return to the planet, Buzz finds the base overrun by Zurg robots (so named because the only word they ever say is, “zurg”. With the help of Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (voice: Keke Palmer), now in her twenties and an aspiring if inexperienced space cadet, plus elderly female convict Darby Steel (voice: Dale Soules) and accident-prone Mo Morrison (voice: Taika Waititi), Buzz sets about trying to defeat the robots of the Zurg, controlled by Emperor Zurg who is not named as such here but recognisable from the Toy Story movies.
If parts of the plot aren’t conveyed terribly well, that’s never a problem because Buzz and the film are constantly in motion going on this mission or fighting that set of monsters. It works as a fairly undemanding action movie aimed primarily at young children.
Although resembling and moving like a cat, the robot Sox is closer in spirit to R2D2 from the Star Wars movies, interfacing directly with the technology built into spaceships and buildings. Izzy, meanwhile, is daunted by the prospect of failure, which for her means not living up to her surname and her grandmother Alisha’s considerable reputation.
Buzz has a running battle with his portable Internal Voice-Activated Navigator unit (I.V.A.N.) with its unwelcome habit of pointing out anything he gets wrong. He fares rather better with the robot cat who one might have feared was going to be irritatingly cute but in fact turns out to be extremely down to earth and practical, with a few unexpected abilities up its sleeve.
The space travel visuals are largely cod-Star Wars, likely to endear it to Star Wars fandom and alienate everybody else. This doesn’t include the spaceship in which Buzz and Alisha initially land, christened by the unimpressed Buzz “the Turnip” after its bulbous shape.
Would that there were more such inventiveness, but, sadly, much of the material here is strictly by the numbers. The malevolent and persistent plant tendrils appear to have been inspired by tacky, games-console CGI, to provide many moments of not at all scary but suitably entertaining adventure, which is fine as far as it goes provided you’re not expecting or don’t want the monsters to be at all horrific. The film never explores them or offers any explanation as to what they’re about, alas, which is a pity as I, for one, would have liked to know more. But they’re fun all the same.
Along with millions of others, I’ve always had a soft spot for Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story films, especially his dilemma of believing himself to actually be Buzz Lightyear when he is, in fact, merely one of millions of identical Buzz Lightyear toy action figures.
All that’s gone, though: what we get here is the ‘real’ Buzz Lightyear, who in this writer’s opinion turns out to be far less interesting than the conflicted toy. Whether that’s down to the casting of Chris Evans rather than Toy Story’s Tim Allen, who successfully made the character his own in the franchise, or to a lack of imagination in directing and script, it’s impossible to say.
For three-year-old boys and girls, caught up in a none-too-threatening vision of spaceships, technology, monsters and alien worlds, it’ll be more than adequate; however, in large parts of the relentless Zurg crash bang dénouement, their parents may find themselves longing for something with a bit less action and a bit more substance.
The gay element caused some controversy in the US where it was cut by Disney executives then reinstated following protests by many staffers. One of its two main characters raising a family within a stable lesbian relationship is presented matter-of-factly and without judgement, as too is the fact that around half the characters appear to be black (but, wait, where are the other races aside from white people and black people? – they’re scarcely represented here). The version shown to UK press appeared to be the uncut one, as we would hope.
NB. Weirdly, for a film which appears to be aimed at very small children, the film picked up a BBFC PG certificate rather than a U. The BBFC’s site also lists two versions, at 96 and 107 minutes in length. We assume that the shorter version is the one with the gay element excised, and if that assumption is correct, the submission of the shorter version is rather worrying.
Lightyear plays in the Annecy Animation Festival 2022 which is taking place in a 100% on-site edition this year right now as a Screening Event on Friday, June 17th, and opens in UK cinemas the same day.
Annecy 2022 trailer: