Thursday, August 18, 2022

The disproval of my Lightyear theory

Warning: Lightyear spoilers ahead.

I haven't written anything about Lightyear on this blog. I think I was too disappointed. That sounds like a strange statement, because disappointment is one of the easiest things to write about if you are reviewing movies, even if it does tend to fall back on familiar themes and engage in flawed metrics about expectations vs. reality. But because of how much I wanted Lightyear to be good, my disappointment left me feeling sorrowful rather than energized to rant. I left my ranting, such as it was, for my review, which you can read here.

If I were to summarize my two biggest problems with Lightyear, they are as follows:

1) I wanted it to have a fun, retro-futurist color palette, as befits the original conception of the character, as well as the kind of lunk-headed sense of fun that came in Tim Allen's original voicework for the character. I needed it to feel simpler and more optimistic, not the major bummer I found it to be at almost every turn.

2) It is about the furthest thing from a movie made in 1995 that would engender a major toy line and all sorts of aspirational excitement among young kids. If anything, this is an eighth or ninth Buzz Lightyear movie, not the first one. (Don't even get me started on the reveal related to the Evil Emperor Zurg, one which entirely undercuts his necessary status as a villain young kids can hiss without their noodle frying.) 

But you know what? My younger son loves it.

He said so at the time, despite some reservations that confirmed for me that he'd also found the movie a bit off. But that feeling didn't linger. When he watched the first half of it again on Saturday -- some friends were looking after him while we cleared the stuff out of our garage -- it started a new cycle of appreciation for the movie and the character at its center.

Yesterday at Disneyland, he desperately wanted a Buzz as his souvenir toy -- it was finding the right one that was the issue. We went on the Buzz Lightyear ride (disappointing) and he asked me a lot of questions like "Who do you like better, Buzz or Socks?" (Socks being pictured in the poster above.) He even talked about how there were parts of the hands-down best ride at Disneyland -- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which I may write about at another time -- that reminded him of things that had happened in Lightyear.

You'd say this could be interpreted as a love of the character from the original four Toy Story movies, but that wouldn't be right. My eight-year-old has only seen about half of those, and none of them recently. He never specifically talked about Buzz from watching those movies, only from seeing Lightyear.

So am I wrong to suggest that Lightyear is too complicated and sad of a movie to create aspirational space ranger love in a generation of young children?

I suppose it could be a matter of when that generation of children came of age. I can pretty much guarantee that children born around 1987 -- which would make them eight, like my son, when this movie supposedly came out in 1995, launching the Buzz Lightyear phenomenon -- would not dig a movie about a space ranger who repeatedly fails in his mission to return his crew home, losing four years at a time and steadily watching the people he cares about die off. Essentially, a whole lifetime of failure that has led to him becoming bitter and grouchy, and causing an older and more bitter version of himself to become the Evil Emperor Zurg.

But maybe 2022 kids can handle this.

The movies they've grown up on have prepared them for concepts that demand more of them. I mean, these are kids who saw Inside Out, who know that sadness is in some way intrinsically related to happiness. Pixar itself has challenged them more often than it has let them off the hook and just given them a sweet and uncomplicated ride. And of course others have tried to imitate the Pixar formula, meaning that even your less challenging types of films -- your Minionses, your Penguins of Madagascar -- have probably had 10% more of a brain than they would have had 25 years ago.

The other factor is that they may not get that Buzz Lightyear is a spoof of astronaut heroes of the 1950s and even earlier, who may have even begun their lives on radio. They don't expect a Buzz Lightyear movie to be light and bouncy and in the overblown style of those early radio serials, so when he's "dark and gritty" -- at least by their standards -- it's only normal.

Still, I think there's something to be said for the thing my son couldn't put his finger on, that didn't quite sit right with him, when we saw Lightyear back in June. He knew instinctively that the tone was off in this movie. That little funny feeling he got in parts of the movie was with me the entire time, and just got worse as it went.

But there's no denying that he has emerged with a feeling of aspirational love and affection for Buzz Lightyear that he didn't have before. So either it's not as dark as I think it is, or that simply doesn't matter to him and others like him.

I'm tempted to watch it again to find out for myself, but I just don't want to. I'm comfortable with it having been a miss for me ... but love that it was a hit for my son. 

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