Friday, June 17, 2022

A Buzz Flight: LIGHTYEAR

I should not have doubted the good folks at Pixar’s ability to go beyond. I walked into Lightyear, sold as a high-flying sci-fi adventure, fully prepared for a cynical brand extension. They’ve hyped it up as Andy’s favorite movie, a story of the real Buzz Lightyear character behind the figure he had in Toy Story. (That some entertainment writers have performed confusion about what that might mean is a sorry state of affairs. Anyone with half a thought can tell it’s an excuse to spin off in a new storytelling world as a separate action franchise.) If that makes it a bit of a prefab conception, well, so be it. The result is a clever and concise sci-fi spectacle with a big heart and a clockwork sense of story. Set in a distant future on the far-flung wilds of the galaxy, the movie finds Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans in full white-bread hero mode) responsible for an accident that maroons an enormous exploration vessel on an alien planet. He doggedly sets out to right that wrong by test-piloting fuels that will get them home, but each failed jump that takes only minutes for him is years for the people for whom he keeps trying. That’s a compelling emotional core, and the story team uses it well as grist for the gears of a tightly-constructed tale. By the time he’s reluctantly assembling a ragtag team to save them all from the evil Zurg and find their way to a new normal, it soars with the sputtering engines of experimental spaceships and whirring steps of robots, and zip-zap of laser guns.

The fun new crew of characters—Space Rangers and rookies, scientists and commanders, a villain with a surprising backstory, and an incredibly cute and helpful robot cat—are immediately lovable creations, imbued with some humanity in their stock positions. And the hurrying-around, getting-supplies, and making-plans of the story dovetails sweetly with the emotional journey on which it sends Buzz. It also manages to make a new character out of one we already loved. He’s the same but different. Buzz the toy’s identity crisis naturally isn’t present here. But director Angus MacLane and team manage to retain his sense of self-doubt mixed with loyalty and determination to protect his found family of friends. Although there are some subtle reuses of lines the toy speaks in the first Story—moviegoers of my generation and younger, who’ve surely memorized its script, will spot them—in new contexts, it’s entirely a new character journey to get involved in here. As Buzz grows in his ability, and responsibility, it’s exciting to see him become the hero he’s meant to be, a team player and a man who can make up for his mistakes. The others, too, learn and grow at just the right pace, as well. Somehow it feels familiar and fresh at the same time.

So, too, the look, which has a glossy fantasy sheen and whirring tech love in its pulp-paperback Cinemascope aesthetics. The animation is full of the typical expert textures and contours, sparkle and sparks, and something like soulful expressions behind the eyes. And in the vehicles and suits, every button and tool is expertly deployed and explained so we can understand the stakes and mechanics of the characters’ plans and problems. That makes it all the more enjoyable when turned loose to work, or not, in enjoyable action sequences that continue to inform character throughout. It’s altogether a skillful deployment of Pixar’s practically patented airtight plotting, where every bit is a logistical or emotional setup or payoff that clicks into perfect place at precisely the proper time for maximum audience satisfaction. It works because we care—quickly, easily, and fully—for the cast, and can get involved in the pleasing jumble of genre tropes expertly mixed and remixed for a new sensation. That may not end up the most moving or complicated of this studios’ insights, but it’s such bustling blockbuster fun, with nary a moment to waste, that it’s all the more enjoyable for being sharply done. If we’re going to have recapitulations and re-imaginations of brands we already know and love by heart, it might as well be this much fun, and actually reward our interest this well. By the time the end credits popped up, I was feeling like when David Letterman was blown away by his Late Show musical guest, saying, “I’ll take all of that you got.”

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