The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from Disney and Pixar.
There was a moment, back in the 2000s and towards the middle of the 2010s, that it seemed no animation studio could ever top the sheer ingenuity of Pixar. Films like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Inside Out, and Coco have become not simply some of the best offerings of the studio’s catalogue, but in the history of animated filmmaking (and let’s not forget the brilliantly tragic prologue to Up). Even more recent efforts like Soul have come close to joining those ranks. And then, of course, there’s the franchise by which Pixar came into being – the Toy Story quadrilogy. Not simply some of the greatest animated films ever made, but some of the most essential in forwarding the medium towards its greatest heights, both in storytelling and in aesthetic glory. One needs only to see the vast leap from the o.g. Pixar debut – the first-ever fully CGI animated film – to its (potentially) final offering in Toy Story 4 to observe just how far forward animation has come since 1995. Its animation is near photoreal, its storytelling much deeper and more philosophical than anything one might expect from a movie largely led by a cowboy doll and a talking spork. So why is it that Lightyear, a Pixar-made sci-fi adventure featuring one of the Toy Story series protagonists on an intergalactic mission through uncharted space and time, feels so…plain?
Billed as the movie Andy is watching in the early minutes of the original Toy Story, and the one upon which the Buzz Lightyear toy he receives in that film is based, Lightyear moves along a decent clip with the occasional fun action sequence, some fun side characters, and lots of quippy dialogue for about an hour and a half as its protagonist pushes the limits of space travel, encounters alien robots, and learns that he can’t finish his ultimate mission alone. If the film accomplishes any goal almost perfectly, it’s that it does seem like it would have been a child’s favorite movie in the mid-90s. However, by Pixar standards, the movie finds itself somewhere between “average” and “decent.” That’s not to say it’s bad – though it certainly could be better – but whether audiences have been conditioned to settle for “solid” filmmaking from what used to be the leading studio in animated innovation because of their past output is a question worth asking.
There’s no moment in Lightyear where the audience or the characters in it are truly challenged, or even asked to sit with an emotional beat for more than about thirty seconds, tops. In its lowest moments, the film almost immediately skips to whatever the next joke or plot revelation is meant to be, often seeming as if it’s afraid the audience will get bored if it doesn’t keep moving at any cost, including the cost of poignancy or genuine distress. It never slows down or sits with anything whenever things go wrong, apart from maybe twice in the entire runtime. Multiple plot points of the movie almost feels as if they were supposed to be longer, but had to be rushed through in order to keep the film under two hours. It feels as if the runtime mandated the story being told, rather than the other way around.
That method of storytelling also extends to the film’s ultimate message, which essentially boils down to “don’t be afraid to ask for help/don’t be stubborn and do your mission alone,” but the movie never really hammers that home until after the climax of the film has come and gone – a climax which raises way more questions than a movie like this has the ability to answer – the actual execution of which seems to be pointing towards an entirely different message about clinging to the past that the film has spent almost no time building toward. Although this other message does give the film’s protagonist a place to go arc-wise, it’s so brief that it never really registers until after the credits have rolled, and even then, it seems as though Disney itself refuses to learn that lesson. There’s something to be learned, but no real challenges to be overcome in learning it that can’t be resolved with a blaster.
As Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans in this iteration) moves through his own story, the film never actually challenges him in a meaningful way apart from physical difficulties; at one point, he forgets to inform his ragtag team that [redacted], and it ends up that he has to fix his mistake via another small action sequence. This largely extends to the other characters as well – all true challenges are physical, all emotional battles are clipped by more jokes (most of which don’t land). If anything, the one thing Pixar hasn’t lost is its ability to churn out fun animal side characters like Sox, a robot cat given to Buzz to ease his emotional state after his off-planet escapades rocket him through an extensive time jump. No doubt this will boost toy sales significantly, so the corporate benefits of the character are abundantly clear from the get-go, but nevertheless, when Sox is on screen, he’s always the most watchable part of the movie.
Visually, the film looks very good, but there’s not much that it’s doing differently than most other animated films. Compared to recent efforts like DreamWorks’ surprisingly charming adaptation of The Bad Guys, the animation itself feels fairly plain – at least by Pixar standards, and especially after Soul’s breathtaking lighting. That said, what’s there works well enough for most audiences, and you most likely won’t hear many complaints like mine about whether it looks interesting or just pretty good. There’s not as much space action past the first act as one might desire from a film about a space ranger, but what’s there is at least engaging to look at, if only because there’s just so much visual noise squeezed into nearly every frame.
In the end, Lightyear gets the job done, but doesn’t put up a lot of effort in getting there. As a sci-fi adventure, it’s solid enough, and kids are unlikely to get bored by it, but for anyone wanting something deeper from Pixar, it’s unlikely they’ll find anything above your run-of-the-mill, average studio animation. There’s little innovation here, but it works on the terms it sets for itself, and it does have a few moments that both kids and adults can latch onto, as well a pretty good lesson for kids to learn (however muddled the teaching of that lesson may be). I suppose the most important question one must ask themselves in the face of something like that coming from Pixar is this: is that enough?
I’m giving “Lightyear” a 6.5/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan reviews the studio's third-straight Disney+ release.
Back in December of 2020, as Disney and Pixar’s latest animated feature Soul debuted on the streaming service Disney+ (with no theatrical release), the world was introduced to a new normal of which we were blissfully unaware. One more Pixar streaming release and nearly a year and a half later, the latest effort from the animation studio, Turning Red, has debuted on the service – as Soul and Luca before it – sans a theatrical showing. Whether this is fair of Disney to do or whether it’s fair that CEO Bob Chapeck only seems interested in pushing funding towards projects exclusively owned and operated by the parent company while others like 20th Century, Searchlight, or even Pixar get the short stick is a discussion for another time, but it must be said up front that Turning Red deserved a theatrical release. Now, onto the actual review.
There are moments when Turning Red feels as though it might transform into something brilliantly subversive, and many times, it’s a hair away from doing so. The main character often bucks from tradition, sneaks out of the home, refuses to heed her mother’s wishes, and generally rebels almost the entire runtime, and the movie not only posits this as a good thing, but something essential to a child’s development as they grow in their independence, especially if their trajectory is distinctly non-traditional. In theory, Turning Red should be one of the most underrated Pixar movies to ever grace a streaming platform. Unfortunately, the execution of those ideas is a little undercut by the fact that this is…well, a kid’s movie.
Animation style and any gripes or defenses of it aside, Domee Shi’s first entrant in the Pixar canon has all the ambition it needs to truly cut through some of Disney’s toughest material: parental disapproval and broken parent-child relationships. To its credit, the film doesn’t completely fix the relationship between Rosalie Chiang’s Meilin Lee (a.k.a. Mei Mei) and Sandra Oh’s Ming (Mei’s mother) by its end, but it also doesn’t really make a definitive statement on Mei’s eventual place in the story. We know how we’re supposed to read into whatever’s going on, but it just seems as though the film could have taken 30 minutes getting there instead of nearly two hours, and much of that is due to the story’s lack of focus.
When Mei is at school with her friends or interacting with her mother, the movie’s cooking well, and one can tell there’s a lot more meat on the bones than previously thought, but then the moment would come when that meat is meant to be revealed, and it’s just…kind of there. The film’s attempts at comedy work for what the movie needs, but still largely fall flat, and while many of the metaphors and what the story is meant to be saying work in thought, they feel sloppy in practice. Perhaps the sloppiness is partially intent, partially happenstance, but nevertheless, messiness in story is one thing and messiness in storytelling is another entirely. Most of this can be attributed to the fact that Mei’s friend characters aren’t that interesting or three-dimensional (Mei herself feels largely two-dimensional most of the time), but it becomes most obvious when the rest of the family is brought into the fold.
Mei’s father is not a character; he’s a mouthpiece for the movie to bounce jokes and character development off of, but we neve actually get to see him develop at all. He’s always around, but never engaged, always in the home scenes, but almost never necessary. His one big moment with Meilin pokes at a sensitivity most animated dads take entire movies to grow into, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in him as anything but a chess piece, a way to move everything else to where it can go while he just stays put where he is on the board. In fact, pretty much any male character in the movie is a one-dimensional piece of cardboard for the movie to use in pretty much every way except advancing the plot or bringing nuance to the story. That’s not to say that the men should dominate the story more – this is very much a story geared towards and for young girls – but it sort of felt as if they were just dropped into a story in which they didn’t really have a place.
Where I will give Turning Red its largest line of credit is in how it tackles female pre-pubescence specifically as something that’s awkward, gross, uncomfortable – as all pre-pubescence is – but also entirely and unequivocally normal. The film references periods in no uncertain terms, and I can’t remember the last time an animated movie had the sense to talk about menstruation with anything except cringey embarrassment at even touching the subject. It may seem like a quietly revolutionary thing for an animated film to do so explicitly, but it’s greatest contribution is how non-revolutionary it feels. One notices the jokes around it and the natural embarrassment a child feels going through it for the first time, but the film doesn’t use these as a way to shun or put down the event of having a period; in fact, Mei’s mother goes out of her way to help her daughter get through her “red bloom” (though obviously the movie is dealing with something else entirely in that moment). There are many other thing the movie does well – the animation looks great, the editing is sometimes ridiculously whimsical, it’s not a slog to sit through, there are fun gags and side characters, and there’s stadium scene that’s really neatly executed – but they’re all things Pixar has always done well, so this stood out as something uniquely praiseworthy.
Simply put, Turning Red may present itself as something truly of a kind with its peers, and to some it will be – which is a good thing – but by and large, it feels like Pixar on cruise control, just cycling through the motions until the next Pete Doctor project can show everyone how it’s really done. Maybe Pixar needed to be on cruise control for audiences to see just how much pressure is put on them for quality filmmaking at a level most people don’t expect from live-action projects out of more scrutinized studios. I will still fight for films like this and for their theatrical releases, regardless of whether I believe them to be as good as they have the potential to be or not; but cruise control still won’t win any races, and Pixar is starting to fall behind.
I’m giving “Turning Red” a 7.1/10.
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.