The simple, charming premise of “Lightyear” is explained in an onscreen text. “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” In other words, it’s the origin story not of a hero but of a piece of merchandise, one that started out fictional but long ago crossed the boundary into real life. More than one hard plastic Buzz Lightyear lived in my house for a long time, just like in Andy’s. To be part of the “Toy Story” universe is to be intimately acquainted with the metaphysics of the commodity form.
This Buzz is a little different, though. He isn’t a toy, and he doesn’t sound like Tim Allen, who did the voice work in the four chapters of Pixar’s “Toy Story” cycle. He’s a real live animated make-believe Space Ranger, and he speaks in the manly baritone of Chris Evans, who played Captain America over in the Marvel Universe zone of the Disney empire.
Like Cap, Buzz is square-jawed, stoic and shadowed by a hint of melancholy — a soulful soldier in an endless corporate campaign. If “Lightyear” lacks both the sublimity and the giddy inventiveness of the best “Toy Story” movies, that may be by design. This isn’t supposed to be a 21st-century masterpiece, but a kid-friendly, merch-spawning movie from 1995. (That was a pretty good year for commercial cinema, by the way.) The Buzz Lightyear toy was meant to stick around after the movie had been forgotten, and to populate a richer, more varied imaginative landscape.
“Lightyear,” directed by Angus MacLane from a script by Jason Headley, aims to please by pandering, to be good-enough entertainment. As such, it succeeds in a manner more in line with second-tier Disney animation than with top-shelf Pixar. The hero, fighting off an invasion force of alien robots, falls in with a motley group of misfits, in whom he must instill the competence and confidence necessary for the task. The action is wrapped in lessons, delivered in a manner that isn’t too preachy, about how it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. And there is a scene-stealing animal sidekick, in this case a robot cat named SOX, voiced in perfect feline-A.I. deadpan by Peter Sohn.
A few soft-boiled Easter eggs pop up to connect “Lightyear” with various “Toy Story” episodes. Remember Zurg? He’s back, with James Brolin’s growl and a secret I won’t spoil. An early section — a kind of extended prologue to the main action — recalls the celebrated montage in “Up” that compresses a long marriage into a few short minutes. This time, the focus is on the friendship between Buzz and his closest colleague, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), who crash-land a crowded space vessel on a distant planet.
Buzz doggedly tries to plan an escape, which means embarking on a series of test flights intended to reach hyperspeed. Each journey lasts a few minutes, which equals four years on the planet’s surface. Buzz stays the same age as Alisha marries, has a son and then a granddaughter, grows old gracefully and is gone.
Her life amounts to a sweet sidebar, a touching miniature movie-within-the-movie. But it also might make you wonder what it would look like if the story were told the other way around, with Alisha at the center. The person she marries is a woman, and a brief display of affection between them has already led some countries to ban “Lightyear,” which deals with the characters’ sexuality in a commendably matter-of-fact manner. At the same time, their marginality to the main plot makes it feel as if the filmmakers were content to check a diversity box, pat themselves on the back and move on.
What they move on to is an energetic, somewhat familiar adventure, with a few moments of lovely deep-space animation. Buzz teams up with Alisha’s now grown granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), and two other Star Command trainees: Darby (Dale Soules), a salty ex-convict, and Mo (Taika Waititi), an all-purpose goofball. And, of course, the robot cat.
It’s possible that, in 1995, “Lightyear” could have been an 8-year-old boy’s favorite movie, but that’s not really the point. Its purpose is to extend brand awareness, and to close a loop between the stuff we see and the stuff we buy.
Usually the movie comes first, but not always, as the “Transformers” franchise demonstrated. Greta Gerwig is making a Barbie movie. And within the “Toy Story” cosmos, the possibilities are endless. How about a Forky docuseries? Or “Shepherdess,” a folk-horror retelling of the Bo Peep story? Personally, I’d be most excited about “La Testa di Patata,” an uninhibited Italian romantic comedy about the courtship of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.
Rated PG. Robot danger. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.