As Pixar has grown, the Toy Story brand has grown with it, and has been an interesting way to track the company’s changes and growths. Toy Story was Pixar’s first feature-length film, and four years later, Toy Story 2 would be the studio’s first sequel. 2010’s Toy Story 3 concluded what might be one of the greatest string of critical and commercial successes from a studio ever, the Toy Story Toons had the company exploring continuing this series beyond features, and 2019’s Toy Story 4 found Pixar supposedly splitting up the franchise’s strongest friendship. As Pixar has evolved and changed over the decades, so has the Toy Story franchise, which has acted as both an examination of what the studio could do, and a litmus test for the company’s many possibilities.
Therefore, it makes sense that the first spinoff to come out of Pixar is Lightyearan origin story of sorts for everyone’s favorite space ranger. Lightyear is presented as the film that Andy loved back in 1995 that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy in the first place. While it’s always fun to revisit these characters that have been around for almost thirty years, the Toy Story series always made those installments feel essential to these characters. There was always a narrative reason to spend more time with these characters, more stories to be told, or a dynamic relationship worth exploring. With Lightyear, Pixar gives us Andy’s favorite movie — a detail we never really needed — an original film that blew his mind as a kid and made him fall in love with these characters. While watching Andy’s favorite film from when he was a kid, it’s hard not to wish that Pixar had spent the time and resources on another original film, another film like Turning Red or Luca or Soulthat could blow the mind of a young child the way Andy’s was with Lightyearinstead of actually giving us Lightyear.
This isn’t to say Lightyear is bad — far from it — but this can not help but feel at times like Pixar is at the bottom of the Toy Story barrel. In Lightyear, Chris Evans voices Buzz Lightyear, the space ranger who is trapped on a planet that has “no intelligent life anywhere.” Buzz, his best friend and commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), and their crew try to find a way back home. In this adventure to get back home, Buzz has to reckon with his past, present, and future, and the arrival of the robot Zurg.
Lightyear‘s story allows for plenty of winks to the original film, and the entire plot is almost built upon thrown-away lines. For example, in Toy StoryBuzz makes a joke about crystallic fusion as a replacement for fossil fuels, and in Lightyear, crystallic fusion becomes a major part of Buzz’s attempt to get home. At times, these references are clever, but it also makes Lightyear seem, again, like it’s built upon the barest remnants of this franchise that haven’t already been mined.
However, Lightyear does present a solid lineup of new characters that do breathe life into this story. The friendship between Buzz and Alisha is the core of Lightyear‘s emotional resonance, and a montage of their experiences together over the years is one of the film’s best moments. Buzz’s crew later in the film, comprised of characters voiced by Keke Palmer, Taika Waititiand Dale Soules, are charming, even if Waititi’s Mo and Soules’ Darby are a bit one-dimensional at times. Evans also does a commendable job of taking on the iconic role of Buzz Lightyear, giving the character just the right amount of gravitas and heroism that he needs, but mixed with just a dash of ignorance and naivety.
But the real star of Lightyear is Sox, a robotic cat and companion for Buzz, voiced by Peter Sohn. This adorable cat is full of surprises, great jokes, and steals every scene he’s in. Sox immediately belongs in the pantheon of great Pixar secondary characters, alongside Edna Mode, Dug, and Bing Bong. Sox is a star, Sox is the future, and if Pixar wanted to make the direct-to-video Sox film that Andy watched in 1997 and thought was “just okay,” the world would probably accept it with open arms.
To his credit, director and co-writer Angus MacLane and co-writer Jason Headley do show love for this character and this world, and craft a fairly interesting sci-fi action film around this beloved character. MacLane has worked within the Toy Story universe before, having directed the Toy Story Toons short, Small Fry, and Toy Story of Terror! But like those smaller versions of this world, Lightyear is a fun detour, but by no means essential to this Toy Story universe. Even the later Toy Story films brought extra context to the stories that came before, and while it’s interesting for Toy Story fans to see who Evil Emperor Zurg is under the robot suit, or how Buzz got his suit, Lightyear never manages to feel necessary.
It’s also hard when watching Lightyear to not think of the past few years of Pixar. Since Onward In 2020, Pixar has released all of its films on Disney +, forgoing the theatrical experience. Yes, Lightyear is the most inherently theatrical of the films that have been released since then, yet it’s a shame that Pixar’s original ideas, like Pete Docter‘s Soul or this year Turning Red from Domee Shi aren’t given the same rollout as the movie that inspired the toy that became a key character in Toy Story. It’s a shame that Pixar used to thrive with original films being released in theaters, where small and beautiful movies like Ratatouille or Up or Inside Out could get a chance in theaters and actually succeed. Now, it seems as though the original ideas are relegated to Disney +, while the known properties are given the theatrical experience. And if Toy Story continues to be a litmus test for where Pixar is going, then maybe that’s the shift that we’re seeing with Lightyear.
Lightyear is still an extremely fun action sci-fi film that is better than most animated films released in a given year, and will bring a smile to fans of this character. But it also is the first time a Toy Story film has truly felt inessential, like Lightyear is trying to show that the opportunities for this franchise can still go to infinity and beyond, yet it’s hard to watch and not wish that Pixar had gone beyond what they know works and focus on more exciting and unique properties. Pixar once showed us that Buzz and these characters were more than just toys, and by expanding this story in this way, Lightyear feels like little more than a child’s plaything.
Lightyear comes to theaters on June 17.