As its title unmistakably suggests, Pixar's Lightyear is a spin-off, of sorts, for the Toy Story series' beloved Space Ranger Buzz, and rarely have I had such fun watching a studio intentionally lower the bar for itself. By now, of course, each debuting Pixar brings with it sky-high expectations, and even when a new release's material is wanting, you know you'll at least be engaged by the traditionally clever fringe touches and state-of-the-art animation. But writer/director Angus MacLane's adventure comedy has a built-in safety feature – a shield against irrationally high hopes – that was a lot more charming than I anticipated, because the way the film has been designed, it doesn't have to be the coolest family entertainment of 2022. It just has to suggest the coolest family entertainment of 1995.
In the real world, that particular entertainment would be the original Toy Story. In the make-believe world of that series, however, it would be Lightyear, which, as an opening title card reveals, was the favorite movie of six-year-old toy owner Andy Davis. (“This,” the text reads, “is that movie.”) Consequently, and inventively, Lightyear isn't an origin story for Buzz so much as an origin story for Andy, explaining why the boy was so stoked to receive a Space Ranger action figure for his birthday, and why he immediately loved the plaything with the same fervor he had for his cherished cowboy doll Woody. Unless it's Better Call Saul, nearly every adult I know has grown tired of prequels. Yet MacLane's offering might prove to be a special exception, because it not only sends grown-ups back to an imagined event from 27 years ago, but back to our own childhoods, inviting us to view Lightyear from the perspective of a six-year-old whose mind was blown by the sci-fi epic unfolding onscreen. Even if you're not necessarily awed by the results, it's still easy to watch the film with a massive grin, thinking, “If I saw this when I was a kid, it would have knocked me out.”
As voiced by Chris Evans, Lightyear's Buzz is a recognizable alternate-universe version of Tim Allen's: stalwart, determined, self-important, amusingly humorless. (“You're mocking me, aren't you?” gets a call-back in the movie's first minutes.) Sharing Space Ranger duties with his colleague and best friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba), Buzz is scouting T'Kani Prime, a planet hospitable to human life, when an unexpected attack leads to their Star Command vessel becoming badly damaged and its crew of hundreds marooned. The only means of escape lie in achieving hyper-speed, and while Buzz – who blames himself for the crew's plight – agrees to shepherd the test flights, he's initially unaware of a catch: For every four minutes he's in space, four years pass on T'Kani Prime. Stubbornly determined to succeed despite the failure of his first hyper-speed test, and despite the crew establishing a thriving and contented community, Buzz travels to space again and again, missing out on Alisha's wedding, the birth of her son, and her eventual passing. By the time hyper-speed is realized some 80 years after Buzz's original effort, it's Alisha's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) who's a Space Ranger, or rather a makeshift version of one, and the mission of escaping the planet pales next to the mission of defeating the invading robot armies orchestrated by the unseen Emperor Zurg.
While that's an awful lot to pack into what is essentially the first quarter of Lightyear's 105-minute running length, MacLane's and co-screenwriter Jason Headley's pacing is nothing if not swift. More than 60 of those 80-ish years, for example, take about as long to transpire as the courtship-and-marriage montage of Carl and Ellie at the beginning of Up. (If you're still traumatized by that Pixar-ian heartbreaker from 2009, fear not; despite Aduba's beautifully performed farewell, you should be able to get through the passage-of-time sequence here without weeping into your popcorn.) And because Pixar's latest has been crafted to resemble an amphetamine-fueled blockbuster from 1995, the summer of which gave us Batman Forever and Die Hard with a Vengeance and the first Mortal Kombat, the action is also restlessly shot and edited, though never oppressively so. The forward momentum rarely abates, and when it does, it's in moments that truly deserve the pause: sweet, unsentimental appreciation of Buzz's and Alisha's long acquaintance; winning laughs in Buzz's procurement of SOX, a robotic-cat companion soothingly and hilariously voiced by Peter Sohn. (The only downside to SOX's arrival comes from wondering why Andy wouldn't have added a plasticized version of this show-stealing feline to his toy chest.)
Plus, the movie's first quarter is especially rich in delights that suggest the outside world of Lightyear's 1995 “creation.” A few of the visuals, such as the renderings of the slimy, tentacled beasts that the accidental T'Kani Prime residents learn to live with, have been conceived with more advanced technology than likely existed 27 years ago, even in the wake of Jurassic Park, Aliens, and John Carpenter's The Thing. (They certainly move faster than the creatures in any of those films.) Most of the details, however, feel spot-on. When computer screens light up, words and images appear in that obnoxious fluorescent-emerald-green hue that we were all forced to stare at for years. I.V.A.N., the virtual-navigation module in Buzz's cockpit, only operates through the insertion of what looks like an 8-track tape; when it fails to function properly, Buzz removes the tape and blows off the dust. As a sci-fi entertainment from the mid-'90s – as a sci-fi entertainment in general – MacLane's is unapologetic in referencing other genre entries, and I caught surely intentional visual nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Return of the Jedi, and other works that would've predated Lightyear's '95 release. (Interestingly, I also noted a bit that mirrored a similar moment in Contact – a clever, meta implication that Robert Zemeckis' 1997 hit actually paid homage to this one.) Say what you will about Pixar routinely feasting on past successes, but whenever the studio does, it generally does so with wit.
Eventually, and despite one completely unexpected character reveal, the plotting grows more rudimentary, the expertly choreographed battle sequences become a tad repetitive, and we're made all too aware of the sturdy life lessons being imparted: Trust in Yourself; Learn to Work with Others; It's Okay to Fail. Yet Lightyear is still a thoroughly terrific time. I giggled at the goofball sidekicks and ambulatory safety hazards voiced by Dale Soules and Taika Waititi. I dug discovering the purposes of previously unexplained buttons on Buzz's spacesuit. I admired composer Michael Giacchino's soaring score and Pixar's continued knack for seemingly impossible last-second getaways. And I loved watching MacLane's movie work its magic on my eight-year-old chaperone, who was constantly riveted, laughed like mad at the unanticipated balloon feature on Buzz's outfit, and left the cineplex, understandably, wanting to adopt a SOX of her own. Upon visiting a McDonald's drive-thru for a Happy Meal after our screening, the girl was nearly apoplectic with joy when the robotic kitty graced the container of her chocolate milk and the box's included toy was a Buzz Lightyear spacecraft. And the marketing cycle spins on.
BRIAN & CHARLES
With Lightyear, the latest Jurassic World, the latest Top Gun, and the latest, somehow-still-lingering Doctor Strange currently accounting for, like, 99 percent of the domestic box office, I wanted nothing more than to rave about Brian & Charles, a tender, offbeat comedy about a lonely Welsh inventor who creates a robotic best friend out of a washing machine, a mannequin head, and a presumably electrocuted mouse. Expanding on their short film from 2017, and shot in mockumentary format à la What We Do in the Shadows, director Jim Archer and screenwriter/stars David Earl and Chris Hayward have no trouble luring you into their enjoyably preposterous narrative, and the titular duo's early scenes together are promising and funny. So why did I briefly fall asleep before the movie was even an hour old? And why, upon awakening, did my underwhelmed lethargy so quickly turn to irritation, and then outright annoyance, and then, finally, resentment bordering on anger?
Part of my reaction, I suppose, stemmed from the soul-draining adorableness of it all. As he explains at the start, Earl's Brian, the village handyman, found himself in a deep, undiagnosed (COVID-caused?) depression that he was only able to excavate himself from through the creation of utterly useless inventions: a flying cuckoo clock, say, or a belt with special compartments for individual eggs. Bearded and baritone-voiced though he is, Brian is winsome – chuckling at his bad jokes like The Office's Michael Scott and going immediately stone-faced when he realizes he's laughing alone – and Earl pushes the tragicomic pathos like Ricky Gervais did in Derek, scooting way past endearing into the realm of insufferable. (His opposite number is Louise Brealey's Hazel, an enamored neighbor just as nice, shy, socially awkward, and insipid as Brian.) Yet despite his brilliantly mechanical readings, Hayward's Charles is also reduced to cutesy schtick. It's not Hayward's fault – although, as a co-screenwriter, maybe it is – that schmaltzy violins surge when Charles calls himself Brian's friend seconds after his “birth.” But Charles is turned into a mere object of pity during the film's final half-hour, and while his fondness for cabbage is charming, his employment as a sentimental plot device absolutely isn't. When the movie's odious villain (Jamie Michie) tosses the robot onto a junk pile with the plan of burning him alive, and the townspeople cheer the destruction of what they presume isn't sentient garbage, why doesn't Charles say anything to reveal his predicament? Why doesn't he even move?
And that, I think, brings me to my biggest complaint about Brian & Charles: The notion that an impoverished, awkward bachelor from Wales could successfully create cognizant life out of a washing machine and an extra-large cardigan was really the only thing I believed in. I didn't buy that a documentary crew would be following Brian around long before the origin of his seven-foot miracle. I didn't buy Brian's crush on Hazel, or hers on him, based solely on their mutual inability to say anything. I didn't buy whatever emotional age we were meant to think Charles was, as he's either a hyperactive toddler (complete with random pouting episodes) or a sullen teenager (complete with rock music blaring from his bedroom) depending on a scene's needs. I didn't buy Michie's bully choosing to incinerate Charles after the robot was proving so beneficial as slave labor. I didn't buy the townsfolk's collective refusal to stand up to said bully until Brian's bravery unwittingly forced them to. (And even then, they wait until Brian has been viciously abused to make their displeasure known.) I didn't buy the all-expenses-paid “trip around the world” golden ticket that Charles was ultimately rewarded. (Who paid for that?! Barely employed Brian? The unseen, one-man doc crew?)
Brian & Charles obviously means well, and it may feel churlish to bitch so hard on such a low-key, wispy, eager-to-please work. But I found the experience maddening, and can only imagine this as a case of a successful short film proving desperately ill-suited for feature-film format. If the same thing happens with the Marcel the Shell movie, I'm gonna be devastated.