Buzz Lightyear is back… for the first time.
The new Pixar movie Lightyear — opening this summer — can be a bit confusing conceptually from afar, as it’s not actually about Buzz Lightyear from the beloved Toy Story films but rather a newly created fictional character who in turn inspired the fictional character we’ve known since 1995.
Fandom took part in an early press preview of footage from the film, mainly focused on the first act and, as it turns out, Lightyear (which stars Chris Evans as the voice of the title character) begins with onscreen text explaining its set up: Lightyear is the movie that Andy Davis from Toy Story adored that led to him becoming obsessed with wanting a Buzz Lightyear toy in the first place.
Discussing the genesis of the film, Lightyear director Angus MacLane (BURN-E, Toy Story of Terror!) explained he, like so many other kids and so many future filmmakers was forever changed by his first exposure to the original Star Wars (which you may be aware led to quite a few toy sales), and as he thought about Andy’s love of Buzz Lightyear as a toy, he pondered, “What was the movie that Buzz was from? And why couldn’t we just make that movie?” Simply put, Lightyear is “The movie that Andy saw that changed his life. Andy’s Star Wars.”
Interestingly, that opening text in Lightyear firmly sets the events of the original Toy Story in the year it opened, 1995, for the first time, though Maclane told Fandom that Andy’s favorite movie actually opened a decade earlier – even if the Buzz toy he wanted was new.
Said Maclane, “It says he got the toy in 1995 but it was from his favorite movie. His favorite movie was not from 1995, his favorite movie was from 1984 or 1985. It was kind of separated from from that. [Lightyear] was something Andy saw on VHS a lot, that’s the way I looked at it.”
Producer Galyn Susman (Ratatouille, Toy Story 4) recalled that there was some early skepticism to making Lightyear so standalone from Toy Story and not simply doing a spinoff about the Buzz we already know. “It did take a little bit of time to get everybody else on board, because Toy Story, it’s a beloved franchise.” Susman said some early questions were, “Why would you want to be doing something that’s so breakaway, that’s so different? Why don’t you want to be more connected in with Toy Story?’
Susman explained they always wanted Lightyear to be Pixar’s first action-adventure sci-fi movie and, for her, “An action-adventure sci-fi movie has stakes. The only way it’s going to be successful is if you’re rooting for the character and believe in their vulnerabilities. And if you’re constantly reminding them that this is a movie that’s associated with another movie, then you basically blow that entire ability to get somebody really into the story of the character. So we knew that and it just took us a little bit to be able to communicate it.”
THE INNER BUZZ
Knowing they were telling a story about this different Buzz, Maclane said the big question then was, “What’s the mythology I want to explore? You have to set up so much so quickly, especially in an animated film where you don’t have very much time. But I was always interested in Buzz Lightyear and telling that story since Buzz Lightyear himself was such an amalgam of [familiar] sci-fi franchises.”
Though this Buzz is not the guy from the Toy Story films, Maclane still wanted them to be connected on some level beyond the superficial and began to ponder a unifying character trait. Ultimately, Maclane said he came to the conclusion, “Buzz Lightyear is a character who is at odds with his surroundings. Or to put it another way, Buzz always has a disagreement over the nature of reality. In Toy Story, Buzz thinks he’s a Space Ranger. Woody disagrees. Toy Story 2, one Buzz thinks he’s the Buzz Lightyear. The other Buzz Lightyear disagrees. In Toy Story 3, you had Spanish mode. In the shorts, he had some other problems, like in Small Fry, where he was tiny.”
The surroundings Buzz finds himself at odds with in Lightyear are two-fold. First is the planet he finds himself marooned on with many others from Star Command. But then, as he begins to take part in test flight after test flight to figure out how to get them back home, he becomes at odds to a far greatest extent. As it turns out, due to time dilation, every test flight is taking just a few minutes for Buzz, even as years are passing each time for everyone else on the planet below.
The new Lightyear trailer (seen at the top of the page) makes it appear as though Buzz simply goes on one mission and returns decades later, but it’s more complicated than that. He’s aware of the passage of time occurring and essentially popping in as an eternally young guest every few years, between his flights, while his colleagues — including his most trusted friend, Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) — are establishing lives and a community that he only gets to briefly dip into, skipping over so much of everyone else’s experiences that are occurring every time he’s gone.
As a result, Buzz is now holding on to what is, for him, a recent past that is increasingly becoming a distant memory for the others. As Maclane put it, “We pictured a story where Buzz Lightyear would be traveling rapidly through time, and all because of a job. And because of that, as a result, he’s separating himself from society and all of his loved ones. This felt like a natural fit for Buzz as a hero out of time; a well-worn story in the science fiction drama.”
Maclane said he felt the film, though this storyline, offered an opportunity to explore the dangers of nostalgia — a notable topic of late, as it was a theme another director with self-awareness of their own love for nostalgia, Edgar Wright, explained was key to 2021’s Last Night in Soho. Maclane promised Lightyear was going to have elements you’d expect in a Buzz Lightyear movie, including Star Command, spaceships, and a ton of robots, while adding, “Lightyear is a celebration of the movies and sci-fi epics in general but it’s also inspired by the dark side of nostalgia and the dangers of living in the past.”
And yes, as you might expect when you hear about this plotline for Buzz and realize it’s Pixar making the film, there is some notable heartache included even in just the brief portion of the film we previewed, given what this Space Ranger is going through and what he’s missing out on. And that’s all before he comes back from one of his missions to find out alien robots have attacked everyone in his absence and now a resistance is trying to fight back.
THAT’S AMERICA’S ASTRONAUT
Given this movie was about a different Buzz Lightyear, Susman explained they always felt they needed a new voice so he wouldn’t sound just like Tim Allen’s toy character. When it came to casting Evans, Susman said, “He needed to have a nice, rich sound, able to be both dramatic and comedic, and most importantly, he needed to be heroic without coming off as arrogant or dense. That’s a tall order, and we immediately knew we had to ask Chris. What we didn’t know is that he is a huge animation fan, and would bring the love and passion into the project as well as his myriad acting talents. He even attended animation dailies and gave the team a pep talk.”
There are obviously some echoes in Lightyear of Evans’ famous role as Captain America, especially given both heroes end up as men out of time. Maclane said this was always part of the pitch to the actor, who was amused by the parallels, but agreed that concept “Is pretty ubiquitous; there’s a lot [of examples]. He saw the value of what we’re trying to do pretty early and it was great to have him as a partner.”
Maclane noted they wanted Buzz to look like fans expect Buzz Lightyear to look, while also making him much more realistically pporptional, adding, “I wanted the design of the world to be cinematic and I wanted it to be chunky.”
Maclane explained what this meant was purposely avoiding the sleek, streamlined look found in a lot of modern sci-fi. “I wanted there to be a thickness to things; an obvious construction. The original Buzz has a lot of chunk inspired by a healthy dose of NASA and Japanese anime, but we didn’t want this new Buzz to look like a toy. So for Lightyear, we brought in Calum Watt, the concept illustrator, to explore the possibilities…. I wanted the technology in the world to be a pushbutton world of inefficiency. A celebration of the early 1970s and 1980s vision of the future.”
Greg Peltz, Art Director for Lightyear, elaborated, “We really wanted the look of our models to be such that you’d want to reach out and touch them and start playing with all the buttons and switches. A basic rule of thumb on our movie is there are no touch screens or cloud sharing in the world of Lightyear. It’s all Zip disks and 20-pound CRTs [cathode ray tube monitors]. In addition to looking cool, there’s kind of a toy-like appeal to the shapes and the deco over style that fits really well with the subject matter since we’re adapting Buzz Lightyear.”
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE ZURG
Where Buzz Lightyear goes, his arch nemesis Zurg can’t be far behind, and indeed, as the trailers show, he is a part of this movie – the leader of the robots who attack the Star Command castaways while Buzz is away.
There is still some secrecy around Zurg (voiced by James Brolin in this incarnation) in Lightyear though, with Maclane telling Fandom, “We’re not really allowed to say a thing, but I wanted Zurg to be even more formidable in this film than he had been before and to kind of reset his level of intensity so that he would be a true villain for Buzz.”
Said Peltz, “Probably the single-most exciting thing I got to personally work on was Zurg. He’s a key character in the Buzz Lightyear mythos and I can’t really talk about the mechanical design of our film without taking a look at our villain. Adapting Zurg for our film was a tall order. The original design from Toy Story 2 is iconic, and we wanted to draw from that source material as much as possible. But at the same time, our movie has a look that is more mature and detailed than the original toy version of the character, so we needed our Zurg to fit within that new aesthetic that we’ve developed for a sci-fi world. But above all, Zurg, he needs to be a threat. His design had to be intimidating so that he could carry the menace and the presence that our story demanded. So taking all of those goals together, reimagining the character as a giant robot was sort of a natural fit for the character and the world that he occupies.”
Peltz added that while Zurg’s design is based on what we’ve seen before, “Zurg also takes a couple of cues from super robots and mecha in Japanese anime, which I am personally a massive fan of. It was so much fun reimagining this character into a form that exudes power and presence. Zurg is a force to be reckoned with in our movie, and he has a crazy array of awesome features that you’ll get to see him use in the film. But most importantly, Zurg’s new mechanical form doesn’t mean he’s a mindless anto-automaton. He’s a fully rounded character, just like the rest of our cast. But to find out what kind of a character he is, you’re gonna have to watch the movie…”
CUTE BUT CREEPY
Maclane chuckled, as he noted that Lightyear very much has what he called “the cute thing” – what he described as “the protagonist’s loyal sidekick. The thing that makes you go, ‘Awww.’”
The cute thing here is Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), a robot cat given to Buzz by Star Command who serves a dual purpose both onscreen and off. As Susman put it, on a story level, “We needed Buzz to have some touchstone that doesn’t age and that stays with him in his universe in that regard. A robot doesn’t age like a human does. [Sox was] somebody for him to talk to so that we knew what he was thinking.”
Similarly, within the plot itself, she added, “The idea was that once Star Command figured out that Buzz was going to be dislocated from everything that he knew, they wanted to give him a constant. So that’s what that companion robot is.”
Maclane said he loved making Sox a robot because, in truth, “I just think that animatronic animals are deeply creepy and they don’t ever look like real animals, yet they move with the confidence that they think they’re fooling you. I felt like that would be a funny way to go about it.”
However, Maclane said he felt that the fact that something was clearly off about Sox could ultimately make him endearing, explaining, “In that manufacturing limitation is actually real warmth. You see the stitching on his face; it feels like a manufactured object. So the contrast of it being so stiff yet you feeling affection for it, because it obviously has a soul, is a really interesting character trait for me.”
Besides his love of cats, Maclane noted Sox was also inspired by, “My love of limited animation. As an animator, I’d always enjoyed animating limited characters like WALL-E, Ken in Toy Story 3, and most of the toys in the Toy Story shorts. It’s the movement limitations that provide much of the charm and comedy of these characters and I wanted something like that for Lightyear. Never for one minute would it be confused with an actual cat; its limited motion prevents that. But Sox would be this true contrast to all the other elements in the film, both in design and motion, making him stick out in a good way.”
Maclane listed off some of Sox’s handy features, including a welding laser, long-range scanners, holo-projectors, an empathy chip, a data port in the tail, and, of course, the ability to speak, before adding, “That isn’t even half of them. There’s a whole bunch that we can’t even tell you about. What we can tell you is that he is a scene-stealer.”
Lightyear opens June 17 in theaters.