Saturday, August 8, 2020

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins

Note: This review contains spoilers for Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins

Following the success of Toy Story 2, a spin-off TV series was produced by Disney and Pixar centering on the traditionally-animated fictional adventures of the ever-popular Buzz Lightyear, entitled Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command is a show I fondly remember watching in my youth, mainly for the interesting expansion on Buzz Lightyear lore and some very memorable characters (while the rest of my Star Command toy collection is sitting in storage, I still have a toy of energy vampire NOS-4-A2 sitting on my shelf to this day). As of this writing, I more recently discovered that the series was turning 20 years old, which instantly made me feel old despite still being in my late 20s. However, as I still own a DVD copy of the DTV movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, I also immediately became curious as to how well it held up after not having seen it for nearly two decades. Not only does it hold up surprisingly well, it was also somehow even better than I remembered it being.

After a mission in which Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) loses his partner Warp Darkmatter (Diedrich Bader), Commander Nebula (Adam Corolla) of Star Command tries to find Buzz a new partner in compliance with regulations that Space Rangers never go without backup. While there is a promising candidate in Mira Nova (Nicole Sullivan), princess to an alien race who can phase through solid objects, Buzz insists he doesn’t need a partner. On a later mission to prevent the evil Emperor Zurg (Wayne Knight) from stealing the Uni-Mind, which enables the LGM psychic link, from their homeworld, Buzz ends up accompanied by a robot named XR (Larry Miller), an eXperimental Ranger created by the LGMs (Patrick Warburton) so he could have a partner. Things, however, go awry when the mission is foiled by Zurg’s newest recruit, Agent Z.

Even though the movie is effectively the first three episodes of the TV series stapled together, presumably cutting out scene repeats, they are combined together in a way that forms a seamless narrative. It also does a great job of setting up the world of the series as well as a new set of characters that would later become central to the series, most especially Booster (Stephen Furst), Mira Nova and XR. Even without the context of the full series, the feature works well as a stand-alone narrative, with a solid character arc for Buzz Lightyear and his chemistry with the new recruits. One of the film’s biggest twists, that being Warp Darkmatter’s secret allegiance with Zurg and his becoming Agent Z, is written, paced and foreshadowed well without seeming like it strings you along too much. Despite the amount of time between viewings, I did remember parts of it and then I remembered more as the movie went on, meaning at least some part of it managed to stick with me after all these years.

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) attempting to stop the evil Emperor Zurg.

One bit of credit I can give is that the movie knows when to be funny, balancing it well with the more serious nature of the story. The location captions in the corner often contain some rather snarky commentary, such as how obviously evil Zurg’s base of operations is. XR himself is a rather funny character on his own, though Zurg displays a perfect combination of humor and intimidation. One particularly funny moment comes from when Zurg is asking about the progress of his plan, only for him to get angry over the fact that the one he is speaking to repeats his own plan back to him because he was the one who came up with it.

Even 20 years later, the animation holds up surprisingly well. The stylized art direction allows for some very fluid and expressive motion from the characters, as well as making it appear that such a wide variety of alien lifeforms can coexist with each other. The lighting and shadow effects contribute greatly to some more heavy and artistic moments as well, making them stand out for the right reasons in contrast to the mundane. In combining three episodes into a feature, there is a short framing device in which the movie is presented as one being watched by the Toy Story 2 cast, something that carried over into the title sequence of the series itself, which manages to work in the movie’s favor as a clever introduction and contribute to the world-building of the Toy Story franchise itself.

As with any animated work, there is usually a chance that some animation errors will slip through the cracks. While they are largely unnoticeable in this movie unless you are looking for them, there was one in particular that stood out to me even after a decades-long gap between viewings. During a fight with Agent Z on the LGM homeworld, there is a clever moment where Buzz puts his wrist laser on autopilot, only for Agent Z to destroy the wrist laser. Immediately after Buzz takes off his wrist gauntlet (the right one specifically) to set up this trick, you’d logically expect his arm to be bare as it appears in some shots, however there are other shots during this whole sequence where Buzz appears to be wearing a gauntlet anyway, which can be both confusing and a little distracting as to how such a major oversight made it into the final product.

Another consistently good aspect of the feature is the well-casted voice acting. Rather notably, Buzz Lightyear is voiced by Tim Allen, bringing over his experience from the Toy Story films proper and playing off of the other voice actors well. Also notable is that, when this film was broadcast on TV as three separate episodes, Buzz’s dialogue was instead provided by Patrick Warburton, who voices him in the full series, in order to maintain consistency. Though it’s been a while since I’ve heard Warburton’s take on Lightyear, I remember it well enough to say that he was able to put his own spin on the character, even if it’s not as iconic as Allen’s original performance.

At the risk of repeating myself, the more prominent original characters are performed well enough that they actually felt like part of the world and the voice actors were able to effectively sell that they had some past relationship with Buzz. Wayne Knight also stands out for his memorable performance as Emperor Zurg, seamlessly working the more humorous aspects of his character while still giving him a commanding presence as an intimidating villain.

Zurg (Wayne Knight) is as intimidating as he is hilarious.

On its own merits, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins is a very enjoyable movie and a welcome addition to the Toy Story universe. The storytelling is solid and works surprisingly well as a stand-alone work, complemented by some great world-building and amazing animation, barring one long-standing oversight. Recommending this movie to Toy Story/Pixar fans who haven’t already seen it is a no-brainer, though I would encourage animation fans in general to give this one a watch if they can still find a copy at a good price. As for watching the actual TV series this film is a pilot for, aside from a single episode on a rare toy pack-in VHS, there is unfortunately no other official home video release beyond this movie as of this writing, not even on the Disney+ streaming service, however video uploads shouldn’t be too difficult to find online.

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