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THOMPSON: If you've seen any of the "Toy Story" movies, you know about Buzz Lightyear, the heroic space ranger immortalized in a line of action figures. Now the character is getting a Pixar prequel, an origin story starring Chris Evans as the original Buzz Lightyear who started it all. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Lightyear" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining me today is Ronald Young Jr. He's the host of the film and television review podcast "Leaving The Theater." Hello, Ronald.
RONALD YOUNG JR: Hello, Stephen.
THOMPSON: It is a pleasure to have you here. Also joining us is writer and film critic Laura Sirikul. Welcome back, Laura.
LAURA SIRIKUL: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
THOMPSON: So for more than 25 years, we've known Buzz Lightyear as an action figure voiced by Tim Allen. Buzz is the toy who had to learn that he was a toy and not, in fact, an actual space ranger locked in conflict with the evil Emperor Zurg. That version of Buzz has appeared in all four of the "Toy Story" movies, which establish early on that the Buzz toy was based on a character in a science fiction movie. The new prequel "Lightyear" opens with a crawl that informs us that the movie we're watching is, in fact, that movie that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy.
This time around, Chris Evans provides the voice of Buzz, a hotshot space ranger who maroons his crew on a forbidding and faraway planet and must perform a series of hyperspeed test runs to determine whether their makeshift fuel source will help everyone escape. The problem is that each test run skips him forward four years, which means his friends get older and life on the planet keeps evolving without him. His best friend, Alisha Hawthorne, played by Uzo Aduba, is the one we see do most of the aging, and she provides the film's emotional center. But eventually, "Lightyear" gets swept up in a grand battle wherein Emperor Zurg, voiced by James Brolin, battles Buzz and a motley assortment of recruits. Those recruits are voiced by, among others, Keke Palmer and Taika Waititi. There's also a talking robot cat named SOX, voiced by Peter Sohn. "Lightyear" was directed by Angus MacLane, who wrote the movie with Jason Headley. It's in theaters now.
Ronald, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Lightyear"?
YOUNG: So specifically with regards to "Toy Story," Pixar's often willing to make a big, confusing headline, and we often think we don't want it. We're going to make "Toy Story 3." We don't want that. It's fantastic.
YOUNG: We're going to make "Toy Story 4." We definitely don't want that. It's still pretty good. Then they say they're going to make this origin story about Buzz Lightyear, and I think a lot of us said, no one asked for this. Why are you making this? And that was the attitude I walked into this movie. But as I saw more previews, I developed more goodwill. Sitting in the theater, I really enjoyed this movie, from beginning to the third act (laughter). They established a good world. I was into Chris Evans playing Buzz Lightyear. I thought the movie was very Black, which I always enjoy seeing. Like, Black folks play prominent roles on screen. I mean, the idea that we have the Hawthorne family and even the replacement commander, Commander Burnside - you know, having all these folks on screen was really exciting for me to see. I really enjoyed watching their interactions with Buzz.
The drawbacks, for me - the third act was, for me, extremely weak. They didn't exactly stick the landing. And I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that we didn't get a lot of character development from Buzz Lightyear himself. We got the - he's a guy who wants to finish the mission. He wants to do this all the way. We didn't get a lot of the why. There wasn't much Buzz origin. Like, why is he like this? So that was a little confusing for me. But it didn't take away from me enjoying the rest of the movie, and it was a great ride all the way through.
THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Ronald. How about you, Laura?
SIRIKUL: I really enjoyed the movie. And the homages that they gave out - they were influenced by "Space Odyssey" (ph). They were influenced by "Gravity." There were so many films that I was just like, wow, it really felt like it was paying tribute to those films. And it was beautiful. I did like the aspect that it was a film that inspired Andy, and it really paid tribute to all the old films that we all fell in love with. Like, we saw something similar to HAL, you know, like, with IVAN. And we also got to see "The Martian" - kind of something similar to how they built the colonies. I really loved that it really focused on space films, you know, with the sci-fi genre. I love the Hawthornes. I love the characters that they all introduced. It's such a sweet story and sweet meaning and moral, like, backing behind it.
The pacing was kind of slow because, like, the third act, like you said, I felt like, oh, this movie's going to end soon. Like, something good is going to happen. And then it continues on with something more dramatic, and I'm like, OK, oh, now it's going to go down, but then something more dramatic happened. But yeah, overall, I really enjoyed, like, sitting there in the - it's great in a theater. I agree. It's great in a theater. I think if I watched it on Disney+ at home, it would have been different.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I agree with both of you. I went into this movie very, very skeptical. I generally am not a prequels person in general. I don't necessarily feel like I need to know how characters got to be the way they are. I kind of already naturally know how it ends. But I think this movie does something very, very smart in its first few seconds, which is it comes up with that crawl and establishes what this movie is and why we're watching.
YOUNG: Yes. Agreed.
THOMPSON: Does that entirely justify this film's existence? I'm not necessarily sure.
THOMPSON: But it is very, very well made. And as Laura kind of indicated, it is really a pastiche of so many different science fiction movies. You mentioned a whole bunch of them. Laura, you didn't mention "Star Wars," which is, you know, clearly picking up a lot of themes from "Star Wars," "Interstellar..."
YOUNG: "Interstellar," yes.
THOMPSON: ...With the time skips and kind of what it means to not be advancing in time as the people you love advance in time.
YOUNG: You mean time dilation, Stephen.
THOMPSON: Time dilation is a very moving concept, and I think they use that concept of really moving effect in this film. We have mentioned the emotional center of this film, the Hawthornes, and how one character aging when another doesn't is a really powerful thing to portray in a film. Like Ronald, like Laura, I've really felt this film. Once it gets into the machinations of space battle and action, I found it less interesting. I just sort of felt at that point like there's a difference between a pastiche that is like throwing a lot of different elements on the screen and something where you were just suddenly just doing the exact same kind of thing that you've seen done a thousand times before in other movies. I do think this movie could have used a few more jokes. You have some comic relief elements that are introduced. I do think Sox the robot cat...
THOMPSON: ...You know, who's voiced by Peter Sohn, who directed "The Good Dinosaur..."
THOMPSON: ...And also did a very weird voice in that film. You know, I thought SOX was a nice little way to introduce comic relief. Any time you have Taika Waititi, you're going to get some humor. But I - it is definitely trying to throw a lot of different themes and elements. There's drama, there's comedy and a lot of space action. It's trying to cram a lot into the movie. On balance, is it my favorite Pixar movie? No. But I did think it was a fun time at the movies. Now, Laura, what did you think of Chris Evans as a replacement for Tim Allen and just as a presence in this film?
SIRIKUL: You know, I love Chris Evans as an actor. He's great. But it's hard to distinguish that voice, especially since the character is very much like Captain America. I felt like I was watching a Pixar version of Captain America. But I did feel like it was a great replacement for Tim Allen because, you know, when you get a toy, they're going to change the voice of the character, maybe because of the rights regarding the toys. That's how it is in life. So I kind of like that. It reflected like, you know, it won't look exactly like it, but I think Chris Evans did a great job. But it was just hard to separate the two.
YOUNG: I think Chris Evans was a good choice for this because in a lot of ways, this character was an archetype. Like, there wasn't - like I said, there wasn't a bunch of character development. And when you get Tim Allen playing the toy, there is a realization in "Toy Story" that I am a toy. I am not actually the Buzz Lightyear who is a person. And all of a sudden, Tim Allen's personality comes through, especially towards the end of "Toy Story" 1 and into "Toy Story 2," "3" and "4" you see more of Buzz Lightyear, the action figure's, personality. Whereas in this movie, it really is - you get a lot of these large archetypes. And I think Chris Evans was good. And I really think that's why they picked him, because he did the Captain America that's talking about teamwork and togetherness and understanding and all that stuff or learning about it, rather, in this film.
But the parts that I wanted to see and I know that Chris Evans is capable of is I wanted to see more Buzz. I wanted to see more reflective moments. And I think they tried to do it a few times in the movie, but it wasn't enough for me to be convinced that an actual change took place. So I agree with most of what Laura is saying here. It's really hard to separate those two characters. But you're right. As it went on, it was more and more, yeah, this is very Chris Evans. And there's not much range going on here.
YOUNG: Yeah, we know that Chris Evans is capable of a lot of emotional range, and this kind of fences him in a little bit. But I think using the word archetype really does jump out. Like, we, the viewing audience, are conditioned to like Chris Evans in whatever he's in. He's a very, very likable actor. And I think they're able to do a lot of shortcutting just with the casting. We've mentioned a few times the Hawthornes, the character of Alisha Hawthorne, played by Uzo Aduba. Now, "Lightyear" actually got caught up in a lot of the dust-up between Disney and the Florida state government, which recently passed legislation affecting Florida schools that's commonly known as the don't say gay bill. And at the time that that was going on, there was a controversy within Disney over a same-sex kiss that had been taken out of "Lightyear." There's a scene where Uzo Aduba kisses her wife in the film, and it was actually taken out and ultimately restored in the final cut.
How did you feel about the portrayal of that relationship? I mean, the kiss is like one second long. Like, you look down at your Slurpee, you miss the kiss itself. But how did you feel about those characters and the way that they're integrated into the movie?
YOUNG: I thought it was very natural. You know, a lot of the controversies that come of these - and without delving too deep into the controversies themselves - come from people writing something down, someone reading it out of context, and then having some sort of feeling about this being in a Disney movie. But watching it on screen, I thought nothing of it whatsoever. I did not even think it was a monumental moment. I saw two people who loved each other having a family. And that family, you know, as it continues to grow and expand throughout the movie, it felt like it was right for the film that we were watching. It felt like it fit in with what we were watching. It did not feel shoehorned or any of that. And so for me, I was actually surprised to read about the controversy later because my instant reaction to that is, have you seen the movie? Because it's, I mean, a kids' film. It's not propaganda. Like, it's just a simple movie here. So I thought it was naturally well done, well written, and I enjoyed it.
SIRIKUL: Yeah, I completely agree. It felt natural. I don't know why it was cut out in the first place because I'm not expecting a make-out scene or even a sexual scene. It's animated.
SIRIKUL: And it's great to see that Disney kept in, like, a same-sex relationship of a family - of, like, falling in love. It felt inclusive of, like, OK, this is natural, and this is normal. And I really - I know that it's - like, they're not showing the film in some parts of Asia that's really conservative. But I don't see the big deal of that scene and, like, the moments because it's just showing a natural, normal relationship of family that we see every day.
YOUNG: You know what else? The contrast of Buzz being a man who is stuck in the past and wants to go back to it next to Commander Hawthorne - who essentially is this very progressive character who is understanding of Buzz and giving him an opportunity to go for his mission, but still moving forward with her life - kind of fits more into this universe of her being, like, more progressive and us looking at somebody who is forward-thinking and moving forward while still giving room to be tolerant of a person who - kind of stuck in the past. Which, I mean, it's more interesting if you get more into how analogous that is with how people are viewing the movie and who's showing the movie and who's not showing the movie.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I think it's interesting that that kiss was cut because, to me, like, what I love about Pixar movies, and one of the big things that makes me, like, a Pixar guy, is these really deeply emotional films.
THOMPSON: My favorite Pixar films tend to be more like...
THOMPSON: ..."Up" and "Inside Out," where they're assessing the human condition in really sweet and thoughtful ways and are really using animation to tell the story of entire lives - inner lives, lives of older people, kind of teaching and developing lessons around that. The Pixar I love - I want Pixar to make me cry...
THOMPSON: ...Like, it's just like, I'm going into the theater, and, like, yes, I want to laugh, and yes, I want to be thrilled and delighted. But come on, Pixar. You know better than just about anybody how to make me cry.
THOMPSON: And so that relationship - those characters at the center of the film - I wanted more of that. More - like, I was very, very moved by the story of Alisha Hawthorne kind of moving through the world out of Buzz's view.
THOMPSON: And if you take that out, then it really becomes kind of a boilerplate space epic.
THOMPSON: So I'm just glad they left as much of the emotional center of that film in.
I guess I want to close out this conversation just by asking, like, do you want more of these "Lightyear" movies? Do you want more Pixar prequels in general? Do you want to see a "Cars" movie where we witness the rise of the machines that brought about the "Cars" movies? Like, how are you feeling about Pixar prequels and about more "Lightyear" movies?
YOUNG: I am here for Pixar to prove me wrong, but I think my stance is, they are taking risks every time they do something like this, and eventually it is not going to pay off. I did not like "Incredibles 2," and that is not a prequel (laughter). That is not a prequel at all. It is a continuation. And they made far too many "Cars" after they made one, you know? So like...
YOUNG: ...But we know that they - Pixar's willing to take these risks, and I think that's what makes them good at what they do. I don't see how "Lightyear 2," the movie, is any good. Now, I do see how "Lightyear" the Disney+ series could be good. And if they went in that direction, I think I'd be more on board. Take me on adventures with these characters, but I don't know if I want to sit in a theater again unless they're going to tell me why Buzz is the way he is, but I don't think I need to sit through 90 minutes of that again.
SIRIKUL: Yeah, I didn't have high expectations with "Lightyear." I was just like, OK, how are they going to figure out this story? But I think I trust Pixar. If they're going to give me a story, no matter what, it has to have a lot heart and meaning and make me cry. And they actually did make me tear up. I feel like if they can find the heart in any story - like, I mean, they found one of a rat who knows how to cook.
SIRIKUL: They found one of - so you - even if they bring out "Lightyear 2," they just have to make sure it has a good base - a good, like, moral of the story that will make me feel emotional towards it.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I'm sort of in the same boat. I am not a big prequel guy. "Toy Story" movies aside, I'm not necessarily particularly partial to Pixar sequels. I thought "Incredibles 2" was definitely a step down from the first "Incredibles." I thought "Finding Dory" was a significant step down from "Finding Nemo."
THOMPSON: I generally vastly prefer these kind of original properties that they're able to come up with. We're only a few months removed from "Turning Red," which is going to be one of my favorite movies of 2022 and a movie that I've already revisited and loved. These more kind of franchise-driven films can be enormously entertaining, and I do think this is an entertaining film, but I hope they are bringing in new stories and new voices instead of kind of continually going back to the well on these things.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, we want to know what you think about "Lightyear," about Pixar, about Pixar prequels. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us @PCHH. Up next - what's making us happy this week.
Now, it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy this week.
Ronald Young Jr., what's making you happy this week?
YOUNG: I want to make everyone hip to a little-known independent video game called Fortnite. It's called Fortnite.
YOUNG: I have been - you know, during the pandemic, I revisited my love for video games. And I like playing games online with other people because I don't - I'm not necessarily one to play by myself. I get scared whenever a character goes inside a house. That's why y'all never hear me on any horror movie reviews on this show, 'cause I'm just...
YOUNG: I'm too scary. So I started playing Fortnite. One of my nephews plays it. I got interested, and I started playing with him, and he's destroying me. The whole purpose of the game - it's a third-person shooter, you're shooting at each other, and you can also build houses, and you can jump from places, and it's a lot of fun. But there's one aspect of the game - the build aspect - that I can never quite get down. But recently, in one of their newest updates, Fortnite got rid of the building aspect, so there's a no-build option...
YOUNG: ...And Uncle Ronald is killing it...
YOUNG: ...In this universe. So I've been playing a lot of Fortnite. I've been playing with other adult friends who all like not building. If you want to find me, I'm @ohitsBigRon. I'll play with you if you're into it, but that's what's been making me happy as of recently.
THOMPSON: I really appreciate it when these games come back and they, like, put up guardrails...
YOUNG: Yeah (laughter).
THOMPSON: ...For the sake of people like us. Like, when Mario Kart created the setting where you couldn't get thrown off the side of the...
YOUNG: Thrown off of Rainbow Road (laughter).
THOMPSON: All of a sudden, Dad was coming in 11th instead of 12th...
THOMPSON: ...And it was pretty sweet. Thank you, Ronald.
Laura Sirikul, how about you?
SIRIKUL: BTS - you know, my favorite group in the world...
SIRIKUL: They just released a album, "Proof." It's their anthology album, where they have three different CDs with all their older songs and also new songs that they established before they took their hiatus - recent hiatus. It really is a journey of their music throughout the nine years that they've been together. And so - and "Yet To Come," with their recent single, is just beautiful, and it's just an homage to that history and for their next chapter.
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BTS: (Singing) My moment is yet to come, yet to come.
(Rapping in Korean).
(Singing) Moment is yet to come, yeah.
(Rapping in Korean).
(Singing) Yet to come.
SIRIKUL: And another thing that I'm in love with is - I just watched a movie that's coming out this week called, "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande."
SIRIKUL: And it is such a beautiful film about a sexual awakening of, like, womanhood and aging. And, you know, it goes against Hollywood ageism of, like, how women should be perceived regarding their sexual desires and sexual needs. And so it's great to see Emma Thompson in this role, you know, finding herself, to really opening up who she is and her sexual needs and desire after years of being repressed. And, you know, with Daryl McCormack playing Leo Grande, the sex worker she hires, it felt like a play. And I felt like it was a body-positive film, and I really loved it.
THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Laura Sirikul.
What is making me happy? This is the time of year when every music publication starts to assess the best albums of the year so far, and the year so far in music has been enormously fruitful. And the record I am just in love with right now is called "Shape Up" by the rapper Leikeli47. So Leikeli47 put out a couple of great records a few years back that were part of this trilogy of albums about beauty, and it's been four years since the last one came out. "Shape Up" is completing that trilogy, and it is this remarkably bold and catchy and dark and kind of strange record. Let's actually hear a little bit of my - what's probably my favorite song on this record. The song is called "BITM."
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LEIKELI47: (Rapping) I did not skip any steps. I did not miss one time yet. My jump shot is f****** wet. Mambo mentality set. I'm designing my own lane. Now [expletive] you go do the same. If you still don't understand, let me break it down again. I'm the man.
THOMPSON: At NPR Music, we put together this listening party for this record, "Shape Up," that we put on our site a few weeks back. And it's like a 45-minute video - so you can watch it - of Leikeli47 talking to Sidney Madden, my NPR music colleague and co-host of the wonderful Louder Than A Riot podcast. And you get to just watch them have this really pretty deep and fascinating conversation about this record that just has so much verve and life and energy and grit. So that's Leikeli47. She has put out one of the best albums of the year so far. It's called "Shape Up." And that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.
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THOMPSON: That brings us to the end of our show. Ronald Young Jr., Laura Sirikul, thanks so much to both of you for being here.
YOUNG: Thanks for having me.
SIRIKUL: Thank you.
THOMPSON: A reminder before we go - NPR is doing its annual survey to better understand how listeners like you spend time with podcasts. Please help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. We would really appreciate your help to support NPR podcasts like this one. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey.
This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all on Tuesday.
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