One reason Pixar can keep finding new outings for space ranger Buzz Lightyear is because their cartoons feature more delicately shaded characters than many live action films do. The former occupants of Andy's toy chest in the "Toy Story" films mature and change as flesh-and-blood characters do, so they don't wear out their welcome.
Buzz had a straight-to-video adventure back in 2000, with original voice actor Tim Allen, but "Lightyear" takes him into intriguing and even poignant directions his toy spaceship could never reach.
The setup for the new adventure is that the audience is watching the movie that Andy saw before receiving his toy. In it, the "real" Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) and his commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) land on a previously uncharted planet.
While the world seems uninhabited, there are flora and fauna hostile to visitors. Buzz and Alisha quickly conclude they can't endanger the large crew who are all in suspended animation. Getting away from vines that make kudzu seem tame would challenge even the best of Space Rangers.
Buzz trusts his own judgment over what the navigational computer or ranger protocol recommends. Unfortunately, this time Buzz should have listened.
As he sideswipes a mountain, he damages the ship's hyperdrive unit. There are no spares (aren't Space Rangers supposed to be prepared like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts?).
As a result, the occupants of the ship have no choice but to settle on the world until they can figure out a way to build a new system.
Buzz comes close to making the process work but winds up with a cruel side effect. When he returns from test flights, his seemingly brief excursions take years. On his ship, a few minutes wind up lasting generations.
In some ways casting Evans is a way of recalling Captain America, who remains lost in time, having outlived his own era. The new commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is annoyed that Buzz's excursions seem like a waste of resources, but Alisha's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) understands the headstrong Buzz may be the best hope of dealing with a new problem on the planet.
A group of menacing alien robots starts attacking the settlement. The only sound they make sounds a lot like "Zurg." That's about the only reference to the "Toy Story" series, but Buzz slowly learns to work with Izzy and her compatriots Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules) to fight off the invaders. They may not be Star Command, but phoning home isn't an option.
As with most Pixar movies, there are plenty of endearing characters. While the film might be called "Lightyear," it almost belongs to a robot cat named Sox (Peter Sohn), who becomes the one friend who sticks with Buzz while Father Time takes everyone else out of the picture.
As with most Space Rangers, Buzz doesn't want to have touchy-feely discussions, but his emotional isolation could put everyone else in danger when Buzz's skills are needed most. Sohn's droll but sensitive delivery makes one wish there were more electronic cats out there.
For a computer animated film, there's also a refreshing take on human frailty. The missteps that Buzz and others make don't become their defining traits. Yes, Buzz and others come to regret their blunders, but they also know that fate is going to give them chances to learn and atone.
The tone and feel of "Lightyear" is distinct from the "Toy Story" series, and that also helps prevent director Angus MacLane (who co-directed "Finding Dory") from making audiences feel as if he has gone to the well one too many times. Woody and Mr. Potato Head aren't around this time, but the warm spirit from those tales is.
Cast: animated, voices of Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Taika Waititi, Peter Sohn, Uzo Aduba, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Director: Angus MacLane
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes