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Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Director: Tad Stones / Writers: Mark McCorkle, Robert Schooley, Bill Motz, Bob Roth

Voice Cast: Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Nicole Sullivan (Mira Nova), Larry Miller (XR), Stephen Furst (Booster), Wayne Knight (Zurg), Adam Carolla (Commander Nebula), Diedrich Bader (Warp Darkmatter, Agent Z), Patrick Warburton (LGM), Kevin Michael Richardson (Space Ranger), Charles Kimbrough (Brain Pod #29), Cindy Warden (Technician, Computer Voice), Frank Welker (Grubs, Self Destruct, Ranger #1, Rhizomian Man, Cadet Flarn), Sean P. Hayes (Brain Pod #13), Jennifer Bailey (Rhizomian Woman), Andrew Stanton (Hamm), Jim Hanks (Woody), R. Lee Ermey (Sarge), Wallace Shawn (Rex), Joe Ranft (Wheezy)

Running Time: 70 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated / DVD Release Date: August 8, 2000

1.78:1 Non-anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5); White Keepcase
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99 (Reduced from $29.99)

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After Toy Story became the top-earning film of 1995 with a $362 million worldwide gross, it would seem an understatement to say that Disney had another hit on its hands. This time, the hit was not delivered from the red-hot Feature Animation department in the midst of a winning streak like no other in recent memory. Instead, it was born out of a promising new relationship in a medium never before fully explored. Pixar Animation Studios had made the first all-computer-animated feature a distinct success.

These days, numbers like Toy Story's would trigger a quick green-lighting of a theatrical sequel for most movies. But, as we've seen in the twelve years since, Pixar has shown an aversion to sequels, even in the face of setting box office records. Meanwhile, Disney has held steadfastly to the belief that animated follow-ups are best suited to budget-conscious, direct-to-video release.
In retrospect at least, it makes sense that Toy Story 2 was developed as a straight-to-video project but became bound for the big screen when Disney was pleased by the witnessed work-in-progress. Of course, the sequel was a big hit and its $485 million global intake easily surpassed that of its predecessor.

The success led Disney and Pixar to collaborate to serve public demand with more things Toy Story. Though a third film installment, once a major factor in Pixar's widely-covered search for a new distributor (which ended happily when Disney bought Pixar last year), is presently four years from fruition, other non-movie routes have been explored. These include hot-selling merchandise, popular theme park attractions, and an animated TV series. That series, "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command", debuted in October of 2000, just two weeks before Toy Story 2 bowed on VHS and DVD. Like many of the television cartoons that came before it, "Buzz" was traditionally animated (by Korea's Wong Company), produced in bulk (by Disney Television Animation), and entirely aired in a matter of three months. Sixty-two standard length shows were made, three shy of the commonplace 65-episode run. Making up the difference was Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, a movie released direct-to-video two months before the series' broadcast premiere.

We're not in Pixar anymore, Buzz. Though still voiced by Tim Allen, Buzz Lightyear is no longer a deluded toy, but a 2-D intergalactic action hero in "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins - Starring Tim Allen." Pixar contributes a brief computer-animated establishing sequence in which the toys of Andy's room celebrate the arrival of the new movie. Its pre-movie excitement talk and videocassette jam are about as much fun as anything else here.

A triple-length pilot of sorts, The Adventure Begins was later edited into three episodes and added to the series' syndicated run. But unlike certain DTV features (typically, the least inspired), this is not merely three standard episodes cheaply given the illusion of a feature film. There are actually clear arcs and no evident symmetrical pace-changes. Though the primary plot may still be the good vs. evil stuff of Saturday morning 'toons, it serves to tell a single story while introducing many a new character.

Tim Allen reprises his role as the title character here, something he would not do for the TV series. (Apparently, when this movie was reformatted for episodic airing, his TV replacement Patrick Warburton re-voiced Buzz's dialogue.) The longtime Disney star's presence is noted by a bold front cover announcement, something rarely encountered on either a Disney or Pixar animated film.

The Adventure begins in the home base of Toy Story's universe, Andy's bedroom. Pixar's opening computer animation finds the familiar characters celebrating the arrival of the new movie on video, as in VHS. (Curiously, the toys' video lacks the "Starring Tim Allen" disclaimer on front -- looks like they may have gotten a bootleg!) You'd think they could have made it be a DVD for this medium's version. For that matter, you'd think Pixar could have gotten its go-to voice man John Ratzenberger to read Hamm's few lines. Andrew Stanton fills in for Ratzenberger, while Tom Hanks' brother Jim speaks for Woody, and Jessie remains mute. Original voice talent Wallace Shawn (Rex), R. Lee Ermey (Sarge), and Joe Ranft (Wheezy) all do reprise their roles. Of course, I've already overtalked this CGI opening, for it doesn't last a full two minutes. Still, these 100 seconds may be the most inspired of the whole brief film and it seems too coincidental not to credit Pixar.

Though they police in different ways, Buzz Lightyear and Warp Darkmatter are buddy cops...in outer space! Tangean princess and ranger recruit Mira Nova (voiced by Nicole Sullivan) proves very capable on Star Command's training course.

When the movie the toys have popped into the VCR starts, we are thrust into outer space (care of two-dimensional animation from Walt Disney Television, of course),
where the by-the-book Buzz Lightyear maintains a comfortable rapport with his anything-goes partner Warp Darkmatter (Diedrich Bader, "The Drew Carey Show"). While protecting the universe as a pair of mismatched buddy space cops, Buzz and Warp seem well-equipped for any situation. Alas, their search for three missing LGMs (Little Green Men, as in the silly three-eyed aliens originally discovered in Pizza Planet) ends sadly when Warp dies in a cloudy avalanche.

Buzz vows to never again take a partner, so it's little wonder he doesn't warm to orders from the peg-legged Commander Nebula (Adam Carolla) that a promising recruit work alongside Buzz. The recruit is Mira Nova (TV comedy mainstay Nicole Sullivan), a princess on her home planet Tangea who can seriously defend herself, even on the same intense obstacle course that Buzz himself trains on, and possesses an ability to walk through walls.

Of course, Buzz soon needs all the help he can get in rescuing his little green pals (voiced here by Patrick Warburton, with a lot of sound-altering tricks), who are again in the middle of things. Emperor Zurg (Wayne Knight, replacing Toy Story 2 co-star/writer Stanton), the sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance, manages to capture the Uni-Mind, a floating sphere which links the brain waves of all LGMs. This act is only part of Zurg's plan to take over the galaxy by seizing the minds of all those at Star Command. It's up to Buzz, Mira Nova, and two others -- the buggy LGM-created experimental ranger XR (Larry Miller) and the oversized, underconfident janitor Booster (Stephen Furst) -- to save all and be funny while doing it. Though our sympathies lie with this mismatched foursome, our attentions are regularly directed to Planet Z, Zurg's home planet, where he, newly-unveiled henchman Agent Z, and three levels of fearful lackeys (Brain Pods, Grubs, and Hornets) plot malice.

There are two comic sidekicks in "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command": loopy robot XR (voiced by Larry Miller) and bulky red janitor Booster (Stephen Furst). One of these LGMs is not like the other / One of these LGMs just doesn't belong / Can you tell which LGM is not like the others / By the time I finish my song?

This movie and the ensuing series are the types of projects that likely would have preceded or accompanied Buzz's popularity within the fictional world of the first Toy Story. In fact, DVD supplements reveal that the original Toy Story nearly opened with a Buzz cartoon; the second one realized the idea, albeit as a video game fake-out. This one-off aspect distinguishes the "Buzz Lightyear" series from other animated spin-offs. Of course, it takes Toy Story from a witty, universally-appealing domestic comedy laced with peril
to pure outer space adventures featuring rosters of recurring allies and antagonists. Lost in translation are nearly all the fun personalities that Andy's Buzz calls neighbors.

As one of the more likable cartoon characters in history, Buzz Lightyear makes a promising foundation for any franchise. But the jump from the toy Buzz to the real Buzz loses the endearing quality of delusion; instead of being the guy with a dutiful manner who amusingly treats everything with a serious tone, 2-D Buzz is just a dutiful space ranger who takes his serious job seriously. Toy Story 2 indulged in the out-of-this-world adventures of Buzz, allowing us to at last witness the Evil Emperor Zurg. But it did so briefly and for comedic purposes; here, the material is asked to sustain itself in whole and though it's clearly a comedy, the laughs are not ingrained in the space struggles but in light jabs at human quirks. The sci-fi theme is maintained strictly in The Adventure Begins and thus we're treated to lots of galactic gab and plenty of law-defying stunts. The plot lacks the cleverness of Pixar, but at least the contrivances and formulas are mostly tolerable.

Despite the space setting, action sequences, familiar formulas, and good/bad character archetypes, The Adventure Begins does strive to be funny. It is a mixed bag in this regard; adults and teens will find little more than some gentle laughs, while younger children (normally the easiest audience to comedically please) might not even pick up on much of the subtler jokes. It's definitely refreshing to have a Disney-branded TV series which aims beyond little ones -- the company's most lucrative fare today often caters to tots or tweens -- but this movie is nowhere near as humorous as it thinks itself to be. At least we're mostly spared broad gags. An example of this movie's sense of humor are a steady stream of on-screen text meant to mark locations. While they're obviously supposed to be fun, they come across as little more than a half-hearted way to inject some more wit into the lacking proceedings. One of the biggest laughs this movie could have achieved would have been in cutting back to Andy's room either in the midst of the action or at the end to find the previously-excited toys utterly disinterested and disappointed.

As it is, perhaps the thing that will grant viewers their biggest smiles is the end credits song "To Infinity Beyond" performed by "William Shatner and the Star Command Chorus." Though Shatner's vocals are, as usual, closer to speaking than singing, this tune was recently revived to accompany Buzz Lightyear's appearance in the Disney on Ice Show The Incredibles in a Magic Kingdom Adventure (later retitled Disneyland Adventure).

As in "Toy Story 2", Emperor Zurg is presented as a foe, though this time he's to be taken more seriously. There are signs of unplanned matting as LGM faces get cut off though some overhead space remains.

Of course, if there were no Toy Story and no Toy Story 2 and Buzz Lightyear was posing our introductions to all of these characters (rather than most), it probably would have been easier to take. Even originating from a lesser source could have made this outing perfectly acceptable. Instead, though, it pales considerably having to follow the terrific Toy Story series. There's little doubt that this is the worst thing to bear the Pixar name to date.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Like most of today's direct-to-video films, Buzz Lightyear is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen. However, it strays from the norms in two ways. First, it is not enhanced for 16x9 displays, even though by August 2000, Disney was accustomed to treating new films, especially animated ones, to anamorphic transfers. Secondly, and this might somehow explain the non-anamorphic treatment, the film has been plainly matted from 4x3 "fullscreen" dimensions. While the two ratios are not different enough to constantly distract, it's still pretty clear that the widescreen presentation is a ploy and not one which the movie's creators had in mind all along. Thus, elements at the top and bottom of the screen that were intended to be seen, are occasionally either not seen at all, or are merely cropped.

Beyond these two major shortcomings, the picture is also plagued by some grain and occasional artifacting. Both are things that one rarely finds in either a new direct-to-video creation or a Pixar film, which have always boasted direct digital transfers. Though most viewers will consider the video quality fine and acknowledge that the faults lie more with TV-quality animation, the disc loses points for its needless woes.

The only soundtrack offered is Dolby Digital 5.1. English subtitles are also provided, though these cannot be activated during playback of the film. There are near-constant lip-sync flaws that stem from either the cheap farmed-out animation or merely a lazy marriage of sound to picture. Aside from this, the soundtrack is plenty sufficient, showing some range and dimension in its appropriately active design.

The Rogues Gallery "Game" features Star Command's Ten Most Wanted. Hope you like a challenge because this one's rather tough for anyone not schooled on the TV series. What read-along? This here is a full-fledged "Digital Comic Book"! The Star Command Trivia Game doesn't exactly break the mold in providing slight set-top diversion.

BONUS FEATURES and MENUS

Short on imagination and fun, "Rogues' Gallery Game" is less a "game" than a primer on the TV series. It unfolds as such: the narrator describes one of ten depicted villains (Warp Darkmatter, Gravatina, Gargantians, NOS 4-A2, Evil Emperor Zurg, Shiv Katall, Evil Buzz, XL, Wirewolf, and Torque) and you select the character he's referring to.
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If you're right, you're treated to a sentence of text which is both spoken and "typed out" on screen. The second run-through is slightly better; you're treated to a roughly 10-second narrated clip of the enemy in action. Of course, since only two of these baddies are in the film, a working knowledge of the TV series (impossible at the time of release) is necessary; otherwise you'll left wildly guessing or resorting to skip ahead again and again. This activity is always the same on return visits.

Next, "Digital Comic Book" is an ordinary read-along that is presented like a comic book. As usual, you have the choice to have it read to you or to read it yourself. The former option is the flashier route, running 7½ minutes and boasting animated transitions. Either way, you end up with a plug for Disney Adventures that serves up a Backstreet Boys sighting! The story, "The Emperor's New Throne", tells of Buzz's efforts to thwart Zurg on Princess Mira's planet, providing background to the characters.

Finally, there is the Star Command Trivia Game, which serves up 16 multiple-choice questions. They all pertain to the featured movie and are fairly easy, so no guessing here. Alas, your only reward for getting all right are sixteen phrases of praise, a score screen that cuts off prematurely, and a chance to answer all the same questions upon another play.

One finds a pretty pitiful bonus features slate here. Assuming any episodes of the ensuing series were available (a fairly safe assumption), any given one would have added to the disc. For that matter, the video trailer (found on original Toy Story 2 DVDs, among others) and an announced character commentary that was dropped also wouldn't have hurt.

The 4x3 menus are rather basic, boasting no animation or sound but colorfully letterboxed selection screens.

Relatively rare at the time but utterly commonplace today, the disc opens with a number of auto-playing previews. These promote the theatrical release of 102 Dalmatians and the DVD debuts of The Tigger Movie, Fantasia 2000, and Toy Story 2. From the Sneak Peeks menu, these same promos can be found, as can two short unidentified spots for the "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command" video game and TV series.

The four heroes of the movie (Buzz, Mira Nova, XR, and Booster) are a tight fit in the Alpha-1's escape pod. Buzz faces off with Zurg. Good, evil, you know the drill.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Anyone hoping to find some of the genius of the Toy Story movies in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins is bound to be severely disappointed. Seven years ago, I was, and even my reasonably lowered expectations were not met.
That's because though this appears to be a direct-to-video movie (which have, on occasion, been alright) and it is a direct-to-video movie, it still plays out like a longer-than-usual Saturday morning cartoon that's not particularly good.

If you were able to immerse yourself early this decade in the TV series this movie is linked to, then you'll probably appreciate this feature-length pilot sufficiently. But even being one of Toy Story's biggest supporters and a hearty Buzz Lightyear enthusiast, I never took to the show and perhaps this unpromising launch deserves some of the blame for that. I'm not as quick to label this outing terrible as critics working around the clock might be. Yes, it is a fairly cosmic letdown. But those open-minded enough to give it a chance, preferably with either appropriately low expectations or a familiarity/fondness of the related cartoon series, should be able to find certain things to like -- a character, a joke, a twist, an exchange -- enough to sustain a rental.

Sadly, the normal light praise given to a DTV movie's DVD doesn't really apply here. The disc deals its feature surprisingly spotty picture quality and a clearly-unintended matted transfer that's not even 16x9-enhanced. Furthermore, the three minor bonus features, unlikely to be deemed special by anyone, could have easily been supplanted or accompanied by more worthy inclusions. Even at its reduced tag, a mediocre movie and a good 5.1 track don't justify Buzz Lightyear's going price.

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Reviewed March 31, 2007.