08 November 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: UNFINITY AND BEYOND

We have arrived at a weird place in this voyage through Disney's animated sequels: a film that isn't a sequel, the original project that it's not a sequel to wasn't made by Walt Disney Feature animation, and the non-Disney non-sequel was not, itself, made entirely or even primarily by one of Disney's own animation studios, but by Jade Animation in Hong Kong, a company that has done a good amount of work for Disney-owned television shows, but is by no means an exclusive Disney partner. So I would almost certainly have been forgiven for skipping over the 2000 release Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins altogether, except I was damned curious; and I knew that if I didn't turn that curiosity into a review, I would never actually get around to watching it. This has of course been the underlying reason for doing a Disney DTV Sequel-a-Thon in the first place, making it seem even more justifiable, in some weird, warped, sad way.

BLOSCTAB - or, you know what, let's just call it Buzz Lightyear going forward, because that's not nearly as gross looking - is not as such a sequel to the legendary Toy Story and the epochal Toy Story 2, nor does contain any of the same characters, in the narrowest sense, outside of a brief opening scene present only on the home video version. Which is a weird phrase to use in regard to a home video-exclusive release, but of course, the sneaky thing about this movie - as its 69-minute running time should be enough to tell you - is that it was the pilot for a full-fledged Buzz Lightyear of Star Command TV show, which premiered some two months after the movie dropped; this was the same tactic that the company had previously used with their first DTV sequel, The Return of Jafar (which shares director Tad Stones with our present subject), though as seems not to have been the case there, the Buzz Lightyear movie was later stripped into a three-part episode that was incorporated into the series' syndicated run, with two changes: the more major was that Tim Allen, who voiced the titular space ranger in the Toy Story dyad, stayed on for the DTV project, while in the syndicated three-parter, he was replaced by Patrick Warburton, the character's regular voice in the series. The minor, more necessary, and infinitely more galling change is that the video version of the story opens with an incredibly peculiar prologue containing several of the characters from Toy Story, all gathered to watch the brand-new release of a new home video adventure starring Buzz Lightyear: Rex (Wallace Shawn) is there, and Sarge the green army man (R. Lee Ermey) and Wheezy the penguin (Joe Ranft), and Mute Jessie, and Woody's distractingly-voiced brother (Jim Hanks), and Hamm the piggy bank (Andrew Stanton). Hamm was performed, originally, by John Ratzenberger, the only man to provide a voice in every feature produced by Pixar Animation Studios, adopted as their lucky charm. That he skipped out on this go-round is proof of just how lucky he is.

The peculiar part is that, of course, the toys are all watching the very movie we are, a fact confirmed when we see the cover-

-which, I want to point out, is accurate down to the inclusion in its bottom-left corner of the little "Featuring the star of Toy Story" graphic, which suggests that the characters from Toy Story exist in a world where Toy Story the movie also exists, presumably as a documentary. The other peculiar part is that, of course, Buzz Lightyear does not feature the star of Toy Story, a fact which this little prologue actually flags: it stars the character (fictional within the Toy Story universe) upon whom the toy protagonist Buzz (non-fictional within the Toy Story universe) was modeled; but "our" Buzz no longer maintains the illusion that he is a real space ranger, and does not act as if he were. So what we are about to start watching, in fact, is not a story about a character we know at all, and the whole thing is a contemptible pit of lies.

Anyway, Woody pops in the VHS tape - and boy, those things look weird nowadays - and we're off to spend the next hour with our filthy lying doppelgänger Buzz.

The actual meat of Buzz Lightyear is, unsurprisingly, very pilot-ey: set up all the new characters that the greatest of all space rangers, Buzz Lightyear, will be interacting with over the course of the next (hopefully) 65 episodes, while providing a template for the kind of adventures he'll be having. They are very explosive adventures, mostly providing opportunities for Buzz to shoot his laser at armies of things or individual things as frequently as possible; it reminded me to an unexpected degree of the cartoon shows from my own childhood, which were about as arbitrary and driven to find excuses for pitched battles at least once per 8-minute act, and I do not know whether to bemoan the fact that children's television did not evolve more in the 15 years separating Buzz Lightyear from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, or to celebrate Buzz Lightyear for so wonderfully capturing the banality of TV shows meant to sell toys to children (for in-universe, that's exactly what it is; and in our universe as well, I fear), and proclaim it a satire. I mean, obviously, I know which of those to do, because the possibility that this is a satire is one my overheated brain cooked up just to deal with the fact of what I was watching.

I do not spend any time covering the plot, because there isn't one; there's a scenario, which is that Buzz must stop Evil Emperor Zurg (Wayne Knight) - the impression one gets is that "Evil" is part of his address, like "Mister" or "Doctor" - from taking over the universe with a mind-control laser that can work without any concern for distance. But at the micro-level, there's a lot of shouting, then quipping - there is a staggering amount of quipping - and then they rush off to a battle, or rarely, a space battle. It took me about a minute to decide I hated the thing, for that is when we see this image:

And not to keep going back to Toy Story, because, well fucking duh this isn't Toy Story, but those aliens were not, to my recollection (and my recollection where Pixar is concerned is fucking flawless), part of the Buzz Lightyear toy universe, but promotional toys unique to the Pizza Planet restaurant chain. And unless in a fit of unbelievably convenient cross-promotion, the producers of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and the owners of Pizza Planet struck a deal, there's absolutely no reason for them to show up in this series at all, and plenty of reasons to wish they hadn't for, they are suddenly made into a strange race of psychic mechanics given all the worst lines, and frequently saddled with the worst animation.

But anyway, they are there, and they motivate a huge part of the first two episodes' worth of story, such as we can use the word "motivated" without bursting into flames.

We meet all the people we need to: Buzz's old partner, Warp Darkmatter (Diedrich Bader), who dies tragically and is absolutely not going to show up as a villain later, Buzz's boss, Commander Nebula (Adam Carrolla), the wistful, giant red janitor alien Booster (Stephen Furst) who longs to be a space ranger, rookie ranger Mira Nova (Nicole Sullivan), assigned to be Buzz's new partner even though he doesn't want one, mis-programed robot XR (Larry Miller), and of course Zurg himself, who gets a fairly large amount of screentime plotting his evil plots, and is by far the most entertaining character, presented less as the ominous, shadowy monster that one might ordinarily predict, and more of a kid with way too much sugar in his system, prone to giddy bursts of weird enthusiasm, and all of the silliest lines of dialogue in the picture (not the same as the quips, though he gets his share). In fact, there's a lot of silliness in Buzz Lightyear, which is just about the only thing that saves it from being a completely blank, pointless slog, particularly since it increases considerably in each episode; not having seen the show, I'd like to imagine that this trend continues, and by the end of the series run it was just 22 straight minutes of pie fights.

Visually, the thing looks like exactly what it is: a cheap slice of TV animation made in Hong Kong with a bit of an assist from Disney's Tokyo studio. Occasionally, it rises to the level of genuine visual inspiration, though this does not happen often enough to make a big thing of it.

Mostly, it's just unexceptionally brightly-colored, low on detail, and light on top-notch draftsmanship, with every character given about three or four expressions that aren't that interesting to begin with, and denote an extremely limited range of emotions, though since the script itself only calls on, maybe, two emotions per character to begin with, this is less of a limitation than it is a by-product of storytelling that doesn't aspire to anything more complicated than simple statements of bravery, defiance, and smirking sarcasm.


Criticising Buzz Lightyear for being this way seems awfully daft, though, since artistry was never even part of the conversation: even by the standards of direct-to-video Disney pictures, this project was light on integrity of any kind, meant solely to work at the shockingly degraded level of afternoon TV animation. If ever Disney attached its name to raw, mindless entertainment, it was with this project. Certainly the fact that Pixar had its name slapped on the box - the fact that Pixar provided even a couple of minutes of animation, which dreadfully means this project is essential viewing for the rabid Pixar completist - is embarrassing to that company, who even with Cars 2 didn't come within spitting distance of something this soulless and mercernary and flat ever again. Small wonder that the relationship between the two companies had deteriorated to such a nasty state by the middle of the 2000s, if this is where Disney was willing and anxious to take the precious resources of the Toy Story franchise.

But for me to dislike the thing is almost disingenuous. Of course it's not worth liking; whipping up the energy to dislike it seems entirely disproportionate to how trivial and disposable the product is. Is it fun, diverting entertainment for the kids and (optimistically) tweens it was made for? I am happy to say that I have no reason to know or care. All I know and care about is that it's lazy, vanilla adventure storytelling so inconsequential that it doesn't even register as a slight against a character who deserved, and frequently got, so much better than this.

There is one thing of note: in one scene, Buzz takes his glove off, and it freaked me the hell out far out of anything resembling sense, proportion or reason. I do not know if this makes it good filmmaking or bad, but I'm not apt to forget it, any time I watch Toy Story ever again.

10 comments:

Colin said...

While understandably jarring, the idea that the character (fictional within the Toy Story universe) upon whom the toy protagonist Buzz (non-fictional within the Toy Story universe) was modeled is human and therefore able to take off his gloves to reveal the flesh and bone hands beneath makes perfect sense. After all, my Batman action figures cannot take off their gloves, despite the fact that the character often does just that in his various screen incarnations, not to mention the comics. I can just imagine our Buzz's reaction to that scene: staring open-mouthed at the television screen in a combination of horror and awe, then looking down at his own permanently white, plastic hand, trying to pull off a glove that isn't there and having a panic attack about it. Of course I am only just now realizing I am describing the scene from the first Toy Story when he sees the Buzz Lightyear toy commercial on the TV in Sid's house, so I suppose in his universe he's already gotten over that sort of thing. Still, I wonder if there's still the occasional little reminder, something that hadn't occurred to him until he was confronted with it, like the glove, that reopens that particular wound? Or maybe his false memories of being a real space ranger didn't include memories of dressing or undressing. Maybe the concept of clothes is completely alien to him. Maybe the concept of actual human anatomy is completely alien to him. Good god, I hope he never sees an episode of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command where the character goes to the bathroom or has sex!

Kenneth said...

I understand the concern regarding the aliens being in this cartoon, even though they don't seem to previously have been part of the Buzz Lightyear brand. In later episodes of the Buzz Lightyear show, there are references to Pizza Planet. Mira orders a pizza from them. I've come to the conclusion that Pizza Planet and the creators of Buzz Lightyear have a deal in which the alien characters are exclusively distributed in toy form through Pizza Planet arcade games in exchange for minor product placement. I can rest easy with this.

Movies Now and Then said...

Nice work as always, but this movie's inclusion has me wondering a few things:
-You reviewed the DuckTales and Goof Troop movies before starting the sequels, so why didn't you also do the Doug, Recess and Teacher's Pet movies?
-Why did you skip over An Extremely Goofy Movie?

Tim said...

Colin- Delightful speculations, and fare more fun to read than the movie was to watch. I agree that the glove "makes sense"; it's just that the sight of it is so unexpected, just because the "real" Buzz model is so ingrained in my brain...

Kenneth- Also fun speculation, and I'm glad you've watched the show, so that I do not have to.

Movies- For the first three, I simply know nothing about the shows, and would be working out of total ignorance; and where Buzz Lightyear was at least, in some recognisable way, a spin-off of a feature film, they are not (and Doug, if I'm not mistaken, was animated entirely outside of Disney). I wrestled with it, but I felt like I had a plausible intellectual out.

An Extremely Goofy Movie was a simpler matter of, "God, I really don't want to. Nobody will notice". Which, sadly, appears not to have been the case.

Zev Valancy said...

Wait, were you too old for "Doug" when it first started on Nickelodeon? That's really sad. That show was some of the best children's TV animation ever. (The Disney-produced continuation was a severe step down.)

Sssonic said...

I WAS a child when I first saw this movie, and I'm happy to say it indeed was a perfectly diverting, zippy bit of fun back then. And I'd be lying if I didn't say I had a certain affection for it even now, if perhaps more so than it honestly deserves but at least somewhat on its own merits.

The big thing for me is the voice-acting; it's TV Good, which is to say there's not a lot of nuance but there IS a lot of vibrancy. Wayne Knight's Zurg in particular never fails to get a bit of a grin with me, especially those moments where he goes from trying-for-cool to outright-ranting more and more with each line he speaks. Likewise, Allen is at least not coasting, though obviously the material doesn't let him go anywhere near as far as he does in the "Toy Story" films proper.

That honestly feels like it applies to the whole movie, in fact: nothing resembling depth or nuance, or even anything particularly creative, but heck, it at least feels like someone somewhere behind the scenes was having fun with it, and it makes for a breezy, straightforward bit of blasting and battling and all that.

But that's just me, and I don't much begrudge you feeling differently.

Shane Blank said...

Now that I know you're not doing it, I suddenly want nothing more than to see your take on Teacher's Pet. Let me advocate on behalf of this little-seen box office bomb and give three reasons you should reconsider its exclusion from your retrospective.

1) It's unusual. Only in 2004 would something this quirky and weird get greenlit by Disney, let alone get put into theaters. Based on the art of Gary Baseman, there is absolutely nothing in the Disney cannon that "feels" like this does. And that alone should make it worthy of your consideration.

2) It's ambitious. Belle's Magical World this is not. While it's filled with goofy humor, it takes its central conflict seriously, and the story throws a couple of unexpected (and very weird) twists to what could have been a standard Disney plot.

3) This movie should not exist. Not in a "Cinderella 2 shouldn't have been made!" sense, but in a "Honestly, I have no idea what executive gave this the okay to be produced, let alone theatrically distributed!" kind of way. It has all the earmarks of being a labor of love, but that doesn't explain why Disney would spend ten million dollars to produce a theatrical conclusion to a short-lived, little-watched television episode. This is, in effect, an animated Serenity.

75% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought this was good, while 25% vehemently disliked it. If the thought of possibly uncovering an (almost) completely forgotten piece of Disney history doesn't intrigue you even a little bit…

jjjonatron said...

What Shane said about Teacher's Pet. You can't skip that movie! You don't even need to be familiar with the show, it's practically a stand-alone thing.

Tim said...

I'll say this much: it came down a battle between how much I wanted to review Teacher's Pet vs. how much I didn't want to review any of the Recess movies.

And to anybody who'd say that I can do one, and not the other: you are clearly not familiar with my work.

Shane Blank said...

Fair enough, I suppose cracking the gates would let in the full flood of DisneyToon's 60 film catalog. But I blame you for spoiling us with your excellent DuckTales and A Goofy Movie reviews. Who wouldn't want to see your take on one of the odder efforts put out in the scatter-shot post-renaissance panic, and one of Disney's biggest animated box-office bombs. (And in a world where both Return to Neverland and The Jungle Book 2 made enormous profits, just think what that means.)

I suppose I can find some solace in the idea that even after this retrospective there are still some bits of Disney history that remain undocumented. And with Teacher's Pet being one of only three theatrically released animated features you haven't touched upon, there's always hope that this profoundly weird little movie will get some critical attention.