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Lightyear review – middling Toy Story spin-off gets lost in space and time

Chris Evans takes over as the iconic Space Ranger in a repetitive Pixar spin-off that can't help but feel like a step backwards

In the opening sequence of Pixar's masterpiece Toy Story 2, we watch in awe as Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger, navigates the pitfalls of a hostile planet, dodging booby traps and using his wit and cunning to survive the seemingly impossible. Soon, we realise what we're actually watching is a level from a Buzz Lightyear video game: thrilling, clever, and funny, it's a showcase for the character as an icon of cool that also sells us on why every child in America would be clamouring for a Buzz Lightyear action figure.

And then there is Lightyear, Pixar's latest effort, a film that never quite manages to convince anyone why this Buzz Lightyear would inspire such levels of fever among the population – especially a seven-year-old boy named Andy, who apparently saw this movie in 1995 and went crazy for its broad storytelling and generic characters. As an in-universe spin-off that awkwardly – and unnecessarily – tries to connect up the dots on something that never needed connecting in the first place, it feels akin to a Pixar placeholder, a movie to keep the studio's biggest brand in sight without ever really finding a reason to exist.

The story takes place in the far reaches of space, where a younger, less together Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans, doing a bit of a Tim Allen impression) makes a fatal error during a routine mission and maroons his entire colony on a desolate planet. The only way to salvage the situation is to achieve the yet to be worked out equation for lightspeed – a task that Buzz, taking responsibility for his actions, valiantly dedicates himself to for much of the first act.

Even ignoring the mental gymnastics one must carry out in order to make sense of what this movie is, Lightyear commits a series of basic errors in its narrative approach: mainly, in taking bits and pieces from a handful of sci-fi movies, pulling in concepts such as time travel and doppelgängers, and blending them with little sense of cohesion (think Tom Cruise misfire Oblivion, which committed a similar cinematic felony in trying to mesh together too many of the genre's big ideas).

It doesn't help matters that the depiction of the Buzz Lightyear character in this movie makes very little sense, since he’s shown as a flawed individual with an aptitude for overestimating his abilities and regularly screwing up. Wasn’t the point of that original, plastic incarnation of Buzz in the 1995 film that he was a toy trying and failing to live up to the ideals set by a perfect hero?

The film's one good idea – admittedly transposed from Christopher Nolan's Interstellar – sees Buzz repeatedly attempting a mission that takes mere minutes for him but results in four years passing on the planet below. Each time he returns to the surface, his friends have aged, things have changed. It's the basis of a more interesting exploration of time, legacy, and family, but one that's abandoned far too quickly in favour of generic chase sequence after chase sequence – regressive, by any animated movie standard, but even more so by Pixar's.

Pixar's weaker efforts can, at the very least, usually claim to be funny, but the humour here never rises above mid-tier Dreamworks level, while the casting of Taika Waititi – playing one of Buzz's many scrappy companions – offers further proof he is an irritating modern casting trend to rival James Corden. Even a beloved sidekick like android cat Sox (admittedly the film's best inclusion) feels like a variation of a type we’ve seen played out over and over again. There’s simply no sense of a studio pushing themselves even slightly out of the stratosphere, let alone to infinity and beyond.

The animation is sleek and occasionally breathtaking in all the ways we've come to expect from a studio with a bank account of Pixar's size, yet flashy visuals can't cover a story that runs out of fuel in the second act, quickly falling into tired variations of the same manic set-pieces (before landing on a “twist” that feels dramatically inert, confusing, and not at all earned). For a movie in which Buzz spends much of his time berating his ship's “autopilot” system, Lightyear sure does wind up feeling like it's running on the same basic principle.

Lightyear is now showing in UK cinemas.

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