The Legacy of Buzz Lightyear

Over the last month and a half I’ve watched Pixar’s animated movie, Toy Story, no less than, oh, two or three hundred times.

My son gets up in the morning, requests: “Star Command?” (An oblique reference to Buzz Lightyear.)

He gets home from day care at noon: “Star Command?”

As we’re eating supper: “Star Command?”

He asks nicely at first, then food starts hitting the walls the more I try to resist.

His aunt gave him the DVD for his second birthday, curse her.

Then I made the mistake of buying him Buzz Lightyear pajamas.

I literally have to peel them off of his body during his deepest slumber after days of constant wear. Woe be to the parent who tries to remove them whilst he’s even remotely conscious. We actually bought him a second pair just so we could rotate some clean garments in there somewhere.

The funny thing is, I don’t mind watching Toy Story two hundred times. It’s the first movie I’ve ever watched that many times and I’m enjoying it still.

If you ignore the fact that it’s a cartoon with talking toys in the lead roles, it’s easy to appreciate just what a superb film it is, in every sense.

The script is perfect. Its precise, engaging dialogue clothes the magnificently structured narrative like a colourfully textured fabric.

Character development is unsurpassed. By the time Woody and Buzz end up back in the van with Andy they’ve learned important life lessons and have transitioned from sworn enemies to blood brothers.

Consider then, that this film pioneered computer-generated, or CG, filmmaking that is so common today.

Just ten years later, it seems you can’t find a kid’s movie that isn’t CG: Madagascar, Brother Bear, Ice Age, The Incredibles. But somehow, they don’t quite measure up to Toy Story.

Toy Story was a true film. Some of the more recent releases seem more to be technical studio jockeying. Ice Age tried to perfect animated fur. Finding Nemo was a showcase for CG water. The pathetic Chicken Little was Walt Disney trying to prove it can do it without Pixar. (It can’t.)

And in a penultimate CG effort, The Polar Express was supposed to demonstrate just how close we are to never requiring a live human actor ever again.

Personally, I find The Polar Express creepy. The characters’ eyes are devoid of life, their movements so artificially natural.

The hot chocolate service scene is particularly disturbing. The stoic expressions on the waiters’ faces as they prance about made me feel like I was observing some macabre Dance of the Cadavers.

As completely CG films become more common, it’s hard to separate the fact that they are more products of technology than artistry. Just consider this: it takes over a year of multiple high-end computers going non-stop just for the final rendering of a CG feature. Madagascar, for example, took 12.5 million render hours.

CG films are, obviously, where it’s at these days. Even the films we think of as live action, like King Kong and Narnia, are largely products of computers and software.
Yet, I find that the more realistically the filmmakers attempt to portray humans, the more I am distracted by their efforts.

I noticed this the first time I watched Shrek 2. I spent most of the movie wondering what the heck was wrong with the talking mannequins. It was a relief when just Shrek, Donkey and Puss in Boots were on the screen and I could safely suspend my belief again.

The next time you’re talking to someone directly, watch their face. It’s a mesmerizing display of character and emotion constantly communicating beyond the person’s spoken words. You can’t fake this, no matter how many computers you throw at it.

Which brings me to Cole’s other obsession: Nanalan’. It’s a morning puppet show on CBC Kids that we often tune in to. The show is unabashedly unrealistic in terms of its visual appeal.

Our favourite part is when one of the characters, Mr. Wooka, puts on a puppet show. Think of that: a puppet show being put on by a puppet in a puppet show. And it’s incredibly engaging. Why?

The characters are solid, there’s a lesson learned in each episode via a clean, well-written script and the show is extremely well performed. And not a computer generated image in site. Heck, the wires holding up the butterflies and birds are clearly visible.

These are two extremes that demonstrate that you don’t really need technology for great film or television. You just need a great script based on a good story that’s performed well. The rest will take care of itself.

Perhaps the CG studios would do well to forget about re-inventing the human and spend more time exploring humanity.

But what the heck. Moralizing aside, we’ll still be first in line for the re-release of Toy Story 2 on Boxing Day. Hopefully I can convince my son to leave his pyjamas at home.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, December 16, 2005

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