The most interesting aspect of “Lightyear” is dispensed with in the first 15 seconds, when it’s explained how and why you’re watching a movie devoted to the action-figure character from “Toy Story.” After that, the movie works primarily as a fairly likable action vehicle mixed with a familiar rumination on what defines a life, without rising into that top tier of Pixar fare its predecessors occupied.
Having hung up his shield, Chris Evans turns out to be the perfect choice to voice this version of Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger introduced on a perilous mission with his partner Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and a wide-eyed rookie who has red-shirted “Star Trek” crewman written all over him.
The mission goes awry, leaving Buzz and company stranded on this forbidding planet. Committed to make right what went wrong, Buzz embarks on his own quest to secure their escape, though the consequences of that are both unexpected and, in the execution of them, oddly sweet and touching.
Directed by Angus MacLane (“Finding Dory”), who shares script credit with Jason Headley, “Lightyear’s” secrets really shouldn’t be disgorged to maximize the viewing experience, but suffice it to say that the film name-checks plenty of things made popular by “Toy Story” lore, from “To infinity, and beyond!” to the villainous Zurg. There’s also a small group of upstart, unorthodox recruits, with Keke Palmer and Taika Waititi (the latter playing a character he seems to have done about seven times before) among the vocal contributors.
Although the action should entertain kids with its space-faring visuals, the bigger concepts in “Lightyear” – the ones that have elevated Pixar through the years – are thought-provoking, if perhaps not of the quality that has elevated the animation studio’s work to another level. They don’t rival something like “Up,” whose lessons come to mind, and the most consistently pleasing addition might be among the silliest: A robot cat named Sox who behaves like a household pet, yet also proves extremely useful in a pinch.
“Lightyear” also organically features an LGBTQ character, worth mentioning because of the discussion of a same-sex kiss in connection with the controversy around Disney’s response to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the studio’s subsequent skirmish with state officials. It’s a small element of the movie that shouldn’t be an issue, which, alas, probably won’t prevent bad-faith actors from seeking to make it one.
Given the source material and the hugely popular quartet of “Toy Story” movies (the most recent unwrapped in 2019) it was a no-brainer to premiere “Lightyear” theatrically, although quality-wise, it’s certainly no better than recent Pixar/Disney animated titles, “Soul” and more recently “Turning Red,” which bypassed theaters and went directly to Disney+.
Whether “Lightyear” lights up the box office, Disney+ will become its eventual home, and this genial Pixar production seems destined to enjoy a long shelf-life there, right next to all the other “Toys.”
“Lightyear” premieres June 17 in US theaters. It’s rated PG.