Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) are stranded on a hostile planet, unable to leave unless they find a stable fuel source. Lightyear offers to pilot a test flight, but in doing so, experiences time dilation as each flight jumps him four years into the future. After several flights, he returns to the planet to find Hawthorne's granddaughter (Keke Palmer) is now leading a ragtag group of volunteers (Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) against an unknown enemy known only as Zurg (James Brolin)...
A benign view of 'Lightyear' is that it's a movie-movie in the same way 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' or any Quentin Tarantino movie is. It's a movie that references others, exists in a world of its own, and honours and homages its influences. The other view is that it's indicative of creative bankruptcy whereby you've got an origin story for a toy from another movie about toys. Taking 'Lightyear' on its own merits, it's a lot of fun.
Chris Evans plays the titular character like Captain America on even more steroids, his baritone voice narrating his mission logs with ease while cracking up an octave when the comedy requires it - which is more often than the trailers would have you believe. Lightyear's companion throughout the movie varies, except for one - Sox, voiced by animator Peter Sohn. A robot cat who hides a USB cord in his tail and has a white-noise generator in his mouth, Sox and Lightyear make a familiar comedy duo together, while the ragtag volunteers led by Keke Palmer include Taika Waititi and 'Orange Is The New Black' alum Dale Soules, one playing a bumbling type and the other a demolition-friendly ex-convict.
At one hundred-or-so minutes of brisk runtime, 'Lightyear' keeps the story light (no pun intended) and direct. We don't need a full explainer on how it's connected to 'Toy Story' - a simple black-and-white message at the start outlines all you need - and given how it's using such familiar sci-fi tropes throughout, the rubber meets the road much faster. Star Command is stranded on a planet, Lightyear feels responsible as he piloted the craft that crashed, takes on test flight duties and eventually winds up experiencing time dilation. Simple, neat, effective.
If all of this seems like it's familiar, that's kind of the point. 'Lightyear' is enjoyable because it gives off a warm, recognisable glow at every turn. The mission logs remind you of 'Star Trek', the ship designs look like they're from 'Battlestar Galactica', the time dilation aspect is something you'll have seen in 'Interstellar', and while all this may be unoriginal, it never rings hollow once. The choices never feel like they're made out of ease, but rather because it's trying to speak in the same visual and thematic language and is taking deep inspiration from them. Director Angus MacLane is undoubtedly an avowed sci-fi nerd, and given how so much sci-fi nowadays seems overly concerned with pointing out the hopelessness in our future, 'Lightyear' feels like a throwback to a time when travelling to the stars seemed like a joyful adventure, not a necessary escape from this world.
'Lightyear' isn't breaking new ground, even though it does have an openly LGBT character in its main cast. Chris Evans isn't being stretched to play an all-American space ranger, and you can pick apart the references to other movies and call it scavenging. For all of this, 'Lightyear' is still so well-meaning and enjoyable, so good-natured and fun, that it's hard to hold any of these against it for too long. The premise is that 'Lightyear' inspired a young kid's imagination with dreams of space rangers, evil emperors, and far-off planets more than a quarter-century ago.
It can do it again.