Pixar’s return to movie theaters with “Lightyear” (June 17) is propelled by nostalgia for sci-fi action-adventure films. For director Angus MacLane, it was his love of the genre and fascination with fearless Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear that led him to make his animated spin-off a trippy movie-within-a-movie. MacLane told IndieWire he pictured “Lightyear” as the blockbuster that would’ve charged the imagination of “Toy Story” kid Andy “the way ‘Star Wars’ got me excited.”
That means Andy watched a Pixar movie in 1995 that was actually made in the 2020s, which is perfect, considering the time-bending, Rip Van Winkle-like premise: After Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) inadvertently strands his Star Command crew on an uncharted planet, he keeps traveling through time warps after a series of unsuccessful test runs to see if the rocket fuel will get them back to Earth. Each time he returns to the planet, though, the crew ages four years while he’s only been gone four minutes.
“I was always drawn to Buzz physically as being a cool toy,” MacLane said. “But there was something hilarious to me about a character who’s absolutely convinced that they’re correct and everyone else was 100 percent wrong, and inadvertently solved whatever problem through their own delusion. It was a good comedic foil for Woody. I always wondered if the backstory of his fighting Emperor Zurg as this space opera could actually be made into a film.”
In addition to co-directing “Finding Dory,” MacLane has two decades of experience with “Toy Story”: He served as an animator on the first two sequels, and wrote and helmed the franchise’s expansion into original TV specials, “Toy Story of Terror!” But it wasn’t until he contemplated Buzz for “Lightyear” that he figured out his protagonist’s unique character trait. “Buzz 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,” he said. “In ‘Toy Story,’ Buzz thinks he’s a Space Ranger, Woody disagrees. In ‘Toy Story 2,’ Buzz thinks he’s the Buzz Lightyear, the other Buzz Lightyear disagrees.”
That led to MacLane wanting to find a personal connection to help fuel the story. In his case, it was the strange sense of disorientation of working on an animated feature at Pixar for four years, and realizing how time had passed him by outside the studio. That led to an odd feeling of nostalgia. “Memories of successes and triumphs, of joys and setbacks. The studio is a bit of a time machine,” he said.
“So that’s the truth I wanted to build for ‘Lightyear.’ Nostalgia for the past while rapidly jumping into the future. We pictured a story where Buzz would be traveling rapidly through time, and all because of a job. And because of that, 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.”
Aside from “Star Wars,” the director drew on other sci-fi movies he admired as a kid (including “Star Trek” and “Aliens”), distilling all of the tropes into a hero’s journey for Buzz. In casting Evans, he leveraged the actor’s heroic persona as Captain America but with Buzz’s corny sense of humor. Yet there’s a big difference between the two: Cap is a team player and Buzz is a loner. “Buzz has a respect for authority and his immediate commander [Alicia Hawthorne, voiced by Uzo Aduba] who he trusts and sees as super confident and someone he aspires to,” MacLane said.
Buzz and Alicia are actually very close, like brother and sister, and it was important for him to witness Alicia’s celebratory family gatherings with her wife and children in a montage. This is where the controversial same-sex kiss — which was cut by Disney but then restored amid the fervor concerning Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — came in.
“The relationship was always there, that was never taken out,” said “Lightyear” producer Galyn Susman. “So that whole montage where we see Alicia get old was always there and it had that same emotional punch. We had the opportunity to argue to have the kiss reinstated and it was, and we think it adds that touching element of that relationship. Basically, Buzz needs to see what he’s missing. That is the point, and so it’s all part of telling that story, and we hope it’s effective.”
Meanwhile, with the introduction of Zurg (voiced by James Brolin), Buzz meets his eventual arch nemesis. The purple action figure of “Toy Story 2” gets transformed into a dangerous, anime-inspired alien robot. MacLane was inspired by Brolin’s heroic role in the sci-fi thriller “Capricorn One” and his hilarious turn as P.W. Herman in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” “Both of those characters are a commanding presence,” he said. “It felt like his voice had so much truth to it and he’s a seasoned actor with gravitas that we could filter through this robot character.”
Pixar achieved several technical breakthroughs on “Lightyear.” With production design, the studio applied a shape language based on aerospace authenticity and chunky, push-button consumer products from the ’80s. The studio built practical ship models that were translated into digital versions, including the spherical colony ship called the Turnip. Additionally, Buzz’s evolving hyper speed crafts highlight the sense of danger from sci-fi movies of the period. And, for the first time, Pixar built a library of digital parts, inspired by practical models, with inherent dirt and grit.
In terms of cinematography, unlike the dystopian sci-fi of “Wall-E,” “Lightyear” touts a sleek, retro, action-adventure look combined with film noir’s heavy use of shadows. Most of the film was shot in anamorphic widescreen befitting the genre, but, for the first time, Pixar explored IMAX through virtual large-format cameras with large sensors, spherical lenses, and a customized pipeline for 30 minutes of footage.
The costume design for the space suits, based on meticulous NASA research, is the most complex in Pixar history. It touted simulation developments to achieve hand-sculpted folds in the cloth, futuristic weaving patterns never seen before, and an unseen operating system underneath the outer shell. Buzz, significantly, has a series of evolving suits that eventually leads to the familiar Space Ranger uniform.
The VFX achieves a stylization that is more graphic than hyper-real (the blasters and hyper speed callouts are great examples) with a new planet and cloud procedural system, and a shading system that has been refined into a single department for both characters and sets for greater efficiency.
MacLane underscored that going “To Infinity and Beyond” for his origin story was always in service to Buzz’s character arc: “His personal and moral failure is the realization that he isn’t perfect, and the need to embrace his imperfections,” he said.