There are a million origin stories in the naked city, and in the toybox too. Now, whether we care or not, we get the backstory of Buzz Lightyear, the disarmingly full of himself he-man space explorer of Pixar’s Toy Story movies, one of the favorite toys of a kid named Andy. Lightyear, directed by Angus MacLane and featuring the voice of Chris Evans, comes right out with Buzz’s biggest secrets, sparing nothing. He’s a diligent problem solver, which has had the adverse consequence of giving him a hero complex. His life has been saved repeatedly—more than nine times—by a robot cat named Sox. But the most staggering revelation of all, at least for those who are easily staggered, is that the original Buzz Lightyear was not a toy at all, but a movie character: Lightyear is the film—made in 1995 and Andy’s favorite, a title card tells us—in which he was introduced. The swaggering hunk of talking plastic we know from 1995’s Toy Story and its three sequels is movie tie-in merchandise, a case of commerce imitating art. The Buzz of Lightyear is, loosely speaking, the art.
This Buzz—voiced by Evans, whose casual charms are evident even when you can’t see him—is a Space Ranger, part of an elite group charged with the task of, as you can probably guess, exploring space. In the film’s early moments, he and a fellow Ranger, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), find themselves and their crew marooned on a desolate planet. Buzz is certain that if he can perfect a kind of super-powered fuel, he can use it to get himself and his colleagues back to Earth. But after his first test run, he learns that although he’s only been off the ground for a few hours, everyone back on the sad planet has aged four years. Undeterred, believing it’s his duty to sacrifice his youth to the greater mission, he keeps improving on and testing that hyperfuel, even as Alisha, his closest friend, chooses to build the best life she can on a planet she never thought she’d have to call home. She rises through the Space Ranger ranks. She meets a partner and has a child. Eventually, she dies, while eternally youthful and stubborn Buzz keeps hacking away at his self-imposed mandate.
The new boss on the planet, Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), decides Buzz’s goal is hopeless and permanently grounds him. But if you think Buzz Lightyear the toy could be discouraged so easily, you haven’t met Buzz Lightyear the movie character. He pushes at his duty so doggedly that eventually, upon his return to planet hopeless, he makes the acquaintance of a Space Ranger he’s never met before. This turns out to be Alisha’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), who has long dreamed of being a great Ranger like her grandmother but who is, as yet, wholly inexperienced. She’s also terrified of space, seemingly a liability in her chosen line of work. And there’s no small task she can’t mess up, much to Buzz’s annoyance.
That may sound like the whole plot of Lightyear, but it’s barely the setup. Buzz has to mobilize a ragtag team of wannabe Rangers—including gangly, hapless Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and an ex-con explosives expert named Darby Steel (Dale Soules)—to vanquish some newly arrived foes, a gang of superrobots called Zurgs, who answer to a leader known, simply, as Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). The Zurgs, with their handy mono-name, represent the simplest concept in the movie: everything else in Lightyear is overthought, and its plot is so hopelessly, desperately Christopher Nolan–style meta, that it caves in on itself. There’s a big plot twist, which the Zurgs in charge have forbidden me to reveal, that makes little sense in the scheme of the story. Worse yet, it causes us to care less about the main character, rather than more. And depending on how much you’ve ever had invested in Buzz Lightyear to begin with—for me it was, admittedly, not a lot—that’s a dangerous prospect for a movie’s emotional mechanics.
Evans probably pours more personality into Buzz than this character warrants. He’s a stalwart fellow, one-third chin and one-third eyebrows, with some rather unmemorable features in between. His macho desire to be the hero is his chief characteristic—he’s a little like the Tom Cruise of the 1986 Top Gun, in case you’re looking for more of that—and it wears thin, fast. As he was presented in the Toy Story movies, Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) was perfectly acceptable, part of the patchwork of personalities that might conceivably have meaning in a child’s toy collection. As a leading man—even one who gets to lean somewhat on the appeal of Chris Evans—he’s pretty much a space dud.
As with all Pixar movies, there are several embedded bromides, including “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” with its attendant footnote “From mistakes come innovation.” The ever-popular “Face your fears” is also represented. The best thing about Lightyear is Sox the robot cat, a cream-and-marmalade marvel who’s always the smartest person in the room, despite not even being a person. Sox has a killer stare, and furballs of fury to match. He can run infinitesimally complex calculations in his little cat brain. While Buzz strides through every scene with plodding virility, Sox pads along breezily, minding his own business unless he’s called upon to save the day, which is often. Sox is the secret star of Lightyear. But not even he is a great enough creation to warrant his own spinoff. Sometimes being the second or third banana—or cat—is reward enough in itself. And a character who’s just the right size for a toybox may not be big enough to carry his own movie.