‘Lightyear’ is fun and funny, but a pale Pixar prequel

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Three one-sentence title cards at the outset of Pixar Animation’s “Lightyear” reveal this was the film that young Andy from “Toy Story” watched that made him yearn for a Buzz Lightyear action figure. It is a helpful clarification about “Lightyear’s” place in the “Toy Story” universe, one that would have been far more effective if built into the actual animated portion of the film (for instance, an epilogue showing Andy and his parents leaving the theater as he breathlessly begs for a Buzz Lightyear toy). As presented, the perfunctory context feels like a slapped-on explanation prompted by one too many questions posed during the post-production process.

Such is the quandary with “Lightyear,” an otherwise entertaining, even charming bit of animated fun that would be more than satisfying in a cinematic vacuum. As a “Toy Story” spinoff, however, it is a middling addition to the Pixar oeuvre.

In a galaxy far, far away, Space Rangers Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans this go around) and Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) led an exploratory expedition onto an uninhabited planet. When conditions turn hostile and their spaceship is damaged, Buzz, Alisha, and the rest of their hibernating Star Command members are unable to leave the remote planet. Their only means of escape is to manufacture the rocket fuel to achieve hyperspeed. Buzz is the most qualified pilot to test the fuel. The problem is that due to gravitational time-slippage, a test run that feels like mere hours to Buzz actually lasts over four years to his marooned crewmates.

A culmination of numerous failed runs plus one final successful flight lands Buzz 60-plus years in the future, when all his contemporaries (including Alisha) have lived lives and passed on. The now-colonists have evolved into a functioning self-contained society, with a ruling sect that seems settled on remaining where they are. Still literally living in the past, Buzz has other aims that place him at odds with the new authorities.

Helmed by “Finding Dory” director Angus MacLane, “Lightyear” boasts the superb animation you would expect from a Pixar production. From Buzz’s interstellar jaunts to his clashes with Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his army of robot baddies, the film earns its action bona fides. The highlight of “Lightyear,” however, is Sox, a robot therapy cat Alisha gifts to Buzz. Voiced by Peter Sohn, Sox and his repartee with Buzz is the film’s witty heart and the amusing centerpiece for both adult and kid viewers.

Only Sox cracks the code for hyperspeed fuel, just one of numerous plot holes in an ultimately slapdash plot — since Sox is just a computer, why couldn’t the colonists just program another computer, or robotic pet, to formulate the fuel during any of Buzz’s many absences? The ultimate reveal behind Zurg’s identity also presents a mystifying puzzler.

Moreover, the latter half of “Lightyear” comprises Buzz teaming with Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter, and a couple of ranger cadet misfits (Taika Waititi and Dale Soules) to stop Zurg and find a way home. They convey standard-issue lessons about the value of friendship and teamwork that are well-suited and worthwhile for “Lightyear’s” target audience.

But they are also pat and superficial, a far cry from the existential underpinning of Pixar movies like “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E,” “Up,” “Ratatouille,” “Coco,” “Soul,” and, heck, especially the “Toy Story” tetralogy.

“Lightyear” is a fun and funny diversion, well worth consuming but not as much contemplating.

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