Making "Lightyear" a Heavyweight
I did it again. Did you see? I made a pun!
Like most people with souls, I enjoyed the Toy Story movies and while I found the 3rd and 4th to be not entirely necessary (but still plenty entertaining). So I was a little surprised that I actually found excited for Lightyear. Despite Buzz Lightyear's corniness, Nerdy Pete was a big fan of Buzz and when I saw how serious this new Buzz would be, I did something a fan, writer, or a reviewer, should NEVER DO: I had hope.
TL;DR: While Lightyear is classic Pixar, filled with fun, wonder, excitement, fun characters and extreme sentimentality that will have the aforementioned "people with souls" with teary eyes at least a couple times throughout the film. Sadly, there's something missing from the movie that probably left a lot of viewers a little disappointed and box office numbers lower than Disney wanted. I say see it. Just know that it's no Toy Story.
What I think worked in Lightyear (spoiler-free)
As I said in the TL;DR, this movie had classic Pixar all over it. Fun characters, great relationships, wonderful storytelling and, as always, incredible animation. Everything worked on paper. I felt that Chris Evans is perfect casting for a "more realistic" take on Buzz Lightyear and he did a perfect job. I want to see more Lightyear movies starring Evans. Real bad. Nerdy Pete can't wait for Sox the Cat to be released. He was super adorable!
The relationships work so well in this but kinda backfire in a way which I'll get to amidst spoilers in a bit.
The story and it's various plot devices definitely work--there's almost nothing that breaks the story and the two things that do don't break it to a point where you can't enjoy it.
What I think didn't work in LIghtyear (spoiler-free)
Unfortunately, the story was kind of depressing. Instead of a cosmic romp, we get something much more limited in scope. It's still plenty fun, but compared to what the name "Buzz Lightyear" represents to quite a few generations of moviegoers, I feel like it was much too limited.
The story ends up being about how Buzz isn't able to let a failure go in an all too literal way. So, we spend most of the movie watching him not let go rather than exploring, fighting space aliens, or just learning to live with failure and/or mistakes (kind of a good lesson to learn, tbh!).
We do have a few questions answered for us regarding the origins of the character Tim Allen played in the Toy Story movies--mainly, what the movie that inspired the toy was like. We learned the truth about Zurg and that was pretty cool, but also a little disappointing (and not entirely logical).
What I think worked in Lightyear (with SPOILERS)
Well, first off, I think they did a 90% job of reverse engineering Buzz Lightyear. Mind you, 100% would be perfection which is impossible. I felt like it was necessary to see more of the traits and behaviors that were exaggerated in the Buzz we've known for years. Some were there, but not enough of them. That said, like I said, I still want sequels. The Buzz we see in this film is basically a flawed Captain America. To clarify, I mean he's incredibly competent at what he does but he's human and makes mistakes. This is fine! Except for how he handles his mistakes (doesn't do what most of us would do--get on with our lives and hopefully learn from them).
The relationship between Buzz and Alisha was soooo great! That's what made the story so heartbreaking (this is the part that kind of backfires). Every time Buzz tried to fix his mistake again, he'd miss more years with his best friend, and frankly, I feel like the movie would have been better if it just followed the two of them on cosmic adventures--but I'll get to my How I'd in a bit.
Despite the heartbreaking nature of their relationship, I think it worked just fine--which was make Buzz (all too slowly) recognize his mistake and also got to show us a montage of a lesbian family go through it's life.
Buzz's relationship with the misfit characters he is paired with for most of the movie is a lot less perfect. It still works, but this great Space Ranger getting paired up with misfits, may be "classic" irony, but it's underwhelming. You can immediately see the story beats play out in front of you--and I mean that both, in your mind and literally, in real time. The characters are still fun and funny, and story-wise, they work well enough but I feel like Buzz and his highly skilled team of Space Rangers would have been more fun.
The big twist/reveal of Zurg's true identity was, like everything else, fun and functional for the story, so it did work to keep the story going.
Sox, the robot cat, is the thing that worked the most for me. He ends up being fun, funny, competent as hell, and an incredibly integral part of the team and the story. Have I mentioned that Nerdy Pete can't wait for the animatronic Sox the Cat to come out?
What I thought didn't work in Lightyear (with SPOILERS)
The whole conceit of the actual story worked, but didn't work well. Having your entire movie be about how Buzz learns to... actually, I am not sure what he learned by the end. He didn't learn how to fail because he never gave up (never surrendered! Oops-wrong Tim Allen character!)--he just kept trying to complete the mission at the expense of his life with everyone he knows except for his robot cat.
The setting for the story was also a challenge for me to find fun. Everyone stuck on a planet because of our hero's mistake in the first moments of the film? This might be my pro-Buzz bias showing, but I would want Buzz to be more competent--especially since this really isn't an origin story were getting but a "how Buzz met Zurg" story. Why not let the rookie cause the crash? Then, you have the rest of the movie about Buzz working with the rookie until they fix things. Buzz learns to be patient with the rookie and the rookie learns to not be a rookie. I feel like this would be less depressing and better show us why Andy (the kid from the Toy Story movies) was so inspired by Buzz in this movie.
A good portion of the movie is Buzz slingshotting around the sun to get this energy thing to work over and over. That and the fact that they never do get off the planet just feels so depressing and confined when you think about the sprawling potential of a story universe with Buzz Lightyear in it.
Every trip around the sun chipped away at the magic of the movie for me thanks to the montage that showed us the life (and lives) he was missing out on--the people he knows and loves living life without him. It was literally watching snippets of potentially more interesting movies zip by in a montage.
Zurg's true identity. Yeah, I know I said this plot point works, but it works weirdly. Discovering that Zurg is actually a future alternate version of Buzz Lightyear just feels a little jumpy-sharky (shark-jumpy?). "We're all our own enemy" or "it was Buzz all along!" are both a little on the nose for me. Plus he has to kill himself before the end of the movie and that's just a weird thing to me. He fails, but still, not only was he trying to kill his older self, but his older self was trying to kill him. Do we need to get the screenwriters to therapy? I think we might! (Not that there's anything wrong with that! I think self-loathing is a common writer-thing, but we're not supposed to say that outloud!)
How I'd have written Lightyear
This is a tough one because I would turn down a chance to script doctor the final draft of the produced Lightyear script because it's just not what I would write. It's too confined. A character with the name "Buzz Lightyear" demands so much more adventure than the confined setting of the movie allows for.
I would happily write a Lightyear screenplay from scratch, though!
I'd start with the thought that this is a new franchise--not just a spin-off of a previous one. I'd dive into existing lore that was developed in the Buzz Lightyear cartoon, the original movies, and the wiki pages for all of the above. Start with the concepts and fictional institutions in those and then build them out. Building the story universe out before allows you to see potential stories in a kind of indigenous way--understanding the planets and the various aliens that exist will invariably show you what stories there are to tell. Obviously Zurg and his robot army would need to be the antagonists but, and this is without doing the above research, I would have him quietly manipulating things from the shadows of deep space.
I think the main premise would then be about Buzz Lightyear and the Space Rangers being peacekeepers and throughout the galaxy--when things get nasty between worlds, when things look like intergalactic war is about to break out, Buzz and the Space Rangers swoop in and provide protection for negotiators as they work with the warring factions to keep the peace. When one negotiator is kidnapped, things get difficult because the negotiator is Buzz's mom.
Obviously, Buzz is too close to the mission and is taken out of active service. As a result, he must rely on his fellow Space Rangers to cover for him while he slowly concocts a plan to track down his mom on his own. Just as he is about to break regs and strike out on his own, his 3 favorite Space Rangers get him a meeting with the commander on the Space Rangers who has assumed Buzz has a plan to go out on his own, and gives him permission to go find his mom--as long as they keep it quiet.
From there, the team of four rangers become an ensemble cast, each with their own standout characteristics that make them unique and fun. One thing is that they are all competent. Audiences need to be reminded of the good that smart people can do.
Together, they travel from planet to planet dodging laser blasts and sinister plans from mercenaries, alien armies, and shadowy figures, slowly working to discover that Zurg is behind everything. Turns out he is trying to get both planets to go to war against with the hope they will destroy each other. Once they do, Zurg can swoop in to snatch up an artifact buried on one of the planets. If Mrs. Lightyear isn't around to negotiate a peace, then it'll happen, Zurg reasons.
But there's one thing Zurg hadn't considered--he's kidnapped Buzz Lightyear's mom!
Obviously, there are some Pixar plot staples, Sox would be in it, there would be close friendships that are challenged but resolved with hugs and better understanding of each other before the movie ends, and Zurg's plan would be foiled. Of course, just as Buzz and his mom are about to tear open Zurg's robot suit, he escapes!
Want more details? You're going to have to pay me first! ;) But you get the idea. It's more of a swashbuckling adventure across space. The most important part is that a big fun story universe is created that is ripe with possible sequels and spin-off series for Disney+ and, Nerdy Pete's favorite part TOYS!
The second most important thing is that the movie not waste its time getting to the part where we get to see Buzz Lightyear Space Rangering. There is this weird wave of movies and TV shows that started almost a decade ago that drag out just the setting up of the premise. Daredevil takes it's entire first season to get him in the red suit. At the time I am typing this, Ms. Marvel seems to be doing the same thing with one more episode in her first season to get us to see the title character in the show. Lightyear doesn't do this exactly, but it does spend a lot of time on showing us Buzz fail over and over. It never feels like he's ever fully a Space Ranger.
In conclusion (SPOILER FREE)
I think that Lightyear was a lot of fun despite my problems with it. As it is, I think it's a great jumping off point for a new franchise. It's a shame that it probably won't get it due to poor box office performance. There is so much fertile ground in that story universe that has Buzz Lightyear in it.
Was Lightyear an entertaining film? Sure was, though a lot of people clearly felt it wasn't as entertaining as they'd like. So, you have to admit, it's likely that if they had done it my way, it just might have done a lot better.
I remember when tickets to Lightyear went on sale--my favorite multiplex had an odd number of screenings available. And by "odd" I don't mean "three, five, and seven," I mean strange. Prime times for big tent-pole movies like Lightyear were not showing on the AMC app. At least not in IMAX--which seems odd, right? Instead, there were a number of screenings in and out of IMAX during the day and on the weekend. It seemed to me like they're weren't trying to catch the folks that usually see franchise movies. I have done zero research on this but it almost seems like the folks at AMC knew that Lightyear wasn't going to do well and didn't have as many screenings for it as it does for other big name movies just to give other big money movies more opportunities to bring in the dough.
I never miss a Star Wars, Marvel, or other big sci-fi movie, so it just seemed very weird to see a smaller amount of screenings I was used to seeing available. I wonder if that ended up helping with it's lower take at the box office. Anyway, it's probably nothing. Random thoughts OUT!
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