Producer: Galyn Susman    Director: Angus MacLane   Screenplay: Jason Headley and Angus MacLane   Cast: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, Peter Sohn, Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Efren Ramirez, Keira Hairston and Bill Hader   Distributor: Disney

Grade: C+

Question: When is a “Toy Story” movie not a “Toy Story” movie?  Answer: When it’s “Lightyear.”  Technically this counts as the fifth entry—a prequel or spinoff, depending on your preference—in the Pixar theatrical franchise that debuted in 1995, but its real predecessor isn’t “Toy Story 4” so much as “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins,” a direct-to-video flick that in turn led to a TV series in the early 2000s.  That effort was uninspired, and though better, especially in the technical department, “Lightyear” is a disappointment too.  It arrives with high expectations but never soars, remaining curiously earthbound despite the outer-space setting.

The conceit, announced at the start, is that “Lightyear” is the 1995 movie that Andy, the kid in “Toy Story,” saw and loved, prompting him to be given the Buzz Lightyear action figure that plays so important a role in all the “Story” installments.  So none of the other familiar faces from the earlier pictures are to be found here, and frankly much of those movies’ fun is absent too.

Instead we get a loopy outer-space tale in which time travel is the decisive element—as it was in “Buck Rogers,” a long time ago.  Buzz (voiced adequately by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen, as of yore) is a rather dim, self-absorbed, hot-shot pilot for Star Command. In his latest mission he’s tasked with investigating an uncharted planet which proves inhospitable, with vines that attack people and other beasties about.  With his usual bravado he says he can pilot the ship out of difficult terrain, but his risky maneuver fails and leaves the crew stranded.

While his friend Commander Alisha (Uzo Aduba) leads everybody in establishing a community on the new planet, Buzz remains certain of his ability to save the day by using local ingredients to produce a fuel cell that will allow him to attain hyper-speed and take a shuttlecraft back home for help.  But his successive attempts are failures, and they have a side effect: though each flight seems only a few minutes to Buzz, back on the planet they represent years, so that when he returns unchanged, the community has been built up and everyone else has aged.  By the time of his latest attempt, Alisha has died, leaving a daughter and granddaughter, and the community has become a major city.  Her successor Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) orders Buzz’s project shut down.

Naturally, Buzz disagrees with the decision, and takes one more unauthorized flight.  This time when he returns, he finds that the planet has been invaded by an army of giant robots led by Emperor Zurg (James Bolin), who is at the point of conquering the domed city.  He has to join with three unlikely, unprepared trainees—Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter, who’s afraid of heights; Mo (Taika Waititi), a bundle of nerves; and Darby (Dale Soules), a hard-nosed old biddy with a yen for weaponry—to defeat Zurg and save the day.  When Zurg is unmasked and his plans revealed, however, it forces Buzz to rethink his egotism and alter his notions about the value of teamwork, the obligations of friendship and the meaning of home.  Rest assured that he learns the proper lessons; what else would you expect of a Pixar hero?

Unaccompanied by his toy box pals and bereft of the cheeky certitude of the plastic figurine that he’s a real space hero, Buzz proves a not very interesting character; we’re meant to feel his emotional transformation over the course of the picture, but the filmmakers never make it palpable (nor, apparently, did the makers of the action figure, since it seems to have been modeled on the unchanged Lightyear, and had to learn the same lessons as his movie model over again in the “real” world).  He comes across as far too reflective of the stolid, one-note protagonists of the actual space movies that were being released in the eighties and nineties.  Nor do his trio of helpers come anywhere near to matching the delirious bunch of cohorts he had in the “Toy Story” movies. They’ve allowed a few throwaway bits of humor that elicit chuckles (like a disquisition on the evolution of the sandwich), but sustained laughs are in pretty short supply.

Instead the picture offers scads of action, which—once again—recalls the sort of stuff that actually occurred in the pictures “Lightyear” is intended to remind us of.  And like many of them, it’s quite impressive visually, though in a way that reeks more of familiarity than innovation.  The technical team—cinematographers  Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben, production designer Tim Evatt, animation supervisors David DeVan and Mark Piretti and effects supervisors Bill Watral and Jane Yen, all abetted by armies of craftspeople—have done the usual fine Pixar job, while editor Anthony J. Greenberg keeps the pace speedy and Michael Giacchino contributes a rousing score.  Yet we never get the sense of being transported to a place we haven’t been before, as in the finest Pixar endeavors.  Though it aims to touch us with Buzz’s pangs of conscience, the film lacks the heart of the studio’s best pictures, and while you couldn’t call the plot unimaginative, it comes across as not just overly convoluted, but coolly manufactured.    

“Lightyear” does, however, exhibit some of the old “Toy Story” magic with its obligatory animal sidekick, a robot feline called Sox (Peter Sohn), who’s easily the most engaging character in the movie.  If it had actually appeared in 1995, the picture might have spawned a Buzz action figure, but it would have been Sox who would have cornered the market and appeared in Andy’s toy box, or at least have been a favorite of his little sister Molly.

By the way, the closing credits include several Marvel-like extra scenes, so you might want to sit through the long ending crawls to see them all.