The streak is over.
For over a quarter of a century, Pixar has been turning out some of the most thoughtful, imaginative, entertaining movies on the planet. The studio’s annual output usually tops my year-end Best List, and I frequently hope that one of its movies will win an unprecedented-for-animation Best Picture Oscar. And even though I may not love every single one of their movies (“The Good Dinosaur” just barely scraped by), all have them have at least been good enough to warrant a recommendation from me. Until now. With “Lightyear,” I have to say for the first time ever that Pixar has let me down.
A title card tells us that this was the favorite movie of Andy from “Toy Story” back in the 90’s. It was why he wanted a Buzz Lightyear action figure so badly. I have a hard time believing that this was ever a child’s favorite movie, and a harder time believing that any child who did see it would want a Buzz toy. All the outer space stuff in this movie? Fine, suspension of disbelief and all that. But that even one kid was sold on Buzz based on this movie? Unswallowable.
The film opens with Space Ranger Buzz (here voiced by Chris Evans, lacking half the passion of “Toy Story” voice Tim Allen) and his partner Alisha (Uzo Aduba) botching a mission to transport a team of scientists to an inhabitable planet. The entire crew is stranded on an unpleasant world. A year passes and people make do the best they can. Buzz takes the repaired ship on a test flight to see if a new fuel source can help it reach the hyper-speed necessary to get to the original destination. The mission is a bust. Worse, four years have passed on the planet due to time dilation.
A dejected Buzz is consoled by a now-engaged Alisha and a robotic therapy cat named Sox (Peter Sohn). Buzz tries again and again to achieve hyper-speed, but the missions keep failing. He only gets to see Alisha once every four years, and every time he does, she’s onto a new chapter in her life. She gives birth to a son, and he in turn grows up to have a daughter of his own. Until one day, Alisha isn’t there. This movie wants to recreate the magic of the opening montage from Pixar’s “Up,” but when it comes to bittersweet montages, that movie is untouchable, and Pixar should know better.
Buzz tries one more time with limited success, and returns to a planet under attack from the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). His only hope to save the day now is to team up with a ragtag group of Junior Rangers, including Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), elderly Darby (Dale Soules), and clumsy Mo (Taika Waititi). The problem is that Buzz hates working with rookies and needs to learn a lesson over and over about how they’re not worthless. It all leads up to a revelation about Zurg that allows him more development than just “Evil Space Emperor,” but is such a common twist these days that another movie in the top five at the weekend box office has basically the same twist.
So much about “Lightyear” falls flat, from the action to the setting to the unfunny jokes and characters. Okay, I liked Sox, and Andy should have wanted a toy of him instead of Buzz, but the human characters aren’t memorable. The best scene in the movie is a conversation about sandwiches, and not because the writing manages to make sandwiches exciting, more like this was the closest thing this movie has to a creative idea. Much like Buzz isn’t used to the new kinds of sandwiches, I’m not used to Pixar movies that are this bad.
“Lightyear” is rated PG for action/peril. Its running time is 100 minutes.
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Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.