It’s not everyday that you get to meet a fan favourite animated character again, for the very first time.
27 years ago, the world met Buzz Lightyear in 1995’s breakout hit, Toy Story. The action figure of the space explorer in Andy’s bedroom gained admiration because of his bravery, courage and by-the-book mindset. He could fly (read: falling with style), speak Spanish and had the sickest karate chops of all the toys, and this year, fans and a whole new audience get to meet Buzz Lightyear again for the first time.
If you haven’t caught on yet, this year’s Lightyear can be regarded as the movie Andy from Toy Story loved and is the pilot and astronaut that inspired the toy in the first place.
Bringing him back to the big screen is Angus Maclane, who is no stranger to Star Command. Prior to taking the hot seat in Disney and Pixar’s latest feature, served as an animator on Toy Story 2 (1999) where he worked on the character’s story and animation. After Toy Story 2, he directed and storyboarded the introduction to Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, the animated series based on the toy. In his years of working with Pixar, Maclane fell in love with the character and even started seeing a part of himself in the space ranger.
“This is a weird thing but it’s very personal to me. I’ve always related to Buzz. He was rather disciplined and square – I’ve always related to him as a personality. He’s always part robot physically and emotionally, and he’s just a really cool toy,” said Maclane in an exclusive interview with Geek Culture.
Despite the closeness, Maclane felt like there was so much more to Buzz that was unexplored. Buzz Lightyear was a space action figure but none of his space adventures were talked about or discussed in any of the Toy Story films. So when Pixar asked him if he wanted to do a film, there was no doubt in Maclane’s mind that a sci-fi space adventure focused solely on Buzz Lightyear would be his pitch.
“He’s a character I’ve kind of stuck with for a long time and been connected to, but I’ve never really felt like his story of his universe has been completely explored. It was always something that always felt like I knew it could be something more! It was always an unanswered question that I wanted to do as a film,” said Maclane.
“Also, I like sci-fi movies, and it was an opportunity to both explore that universe and also do an exciting sci-fi adventure. So it really was the best of both of those ideas.”
Maclane is a big sci-fi geek and it’s clear in Disney and Pixar’s Lightyear that the director had taken inspiration from some of the best IPs when making the movie. These inspirations include Star Wars, Star Trek and Aliens, and it’s not mere fan service either, as the film talks about time travel and the effects of time dilation, and that cause and effect. Maclane also expanded his inspirations outside of the sci-fi genre in order to give viewers a thrilling adventure through space.
“Well, one thing about Star Wars that I was always excited about – just to mention and I decided Star Wars [as inspiration] – is the narrative propulsion of the film. You’re going on a journey, and you’re going from place to place. There’s an energy to that. And obviously, there’s Star Trek, there’s Aliens and Alien. There are a lot of feelings of those types of world-building, tactile 80s sci-fi films,” explained Maclane.
“But also thriller movies, in general, is what we looked at, it wasn’t just sci-fi. It was just, ‘How do we put a person in a difficult situation and watch them have to get out of it?’, so it was those kinds of films that go all the way back to the Hitchcock films.”
The main goal of Lightyear, according to the director, is to make an exciting film that would thrill audiences, as well as create a shared experience. Much like the shared experience he felt when he caught Star Wars for the first time.
“Well, when I was a kid, we saw Star Wars one time because it came out in theatres. It was stylistically really interesting and I was happy to have seen it in the theatre. I felt like because of Star Wars, science fiction was so front and centre in that era. Star Wars kind of built into a really interesting kind of amalgam of some of the hopefulness of the future and so that’s what we kind of want to continue,” shared Maclane.
Aside from Star Wars, the director happily listed down movies that impacted his life and helped shape his directorial abilities.
“When I was three, the thing that was on all the time was Star Trek. And so Star Trek: The Original Series was in syndication that was followed after the success of Star Wars from the original Battlestar Galactica. And then 1980 was Empire Strikes Back, 1981 was Raiders of Lost Ark. 1982 was Poltergeists, and then 83 was Return of the Jedi, and then 84 was Ghostbusters,” listed the director accurately.
Maclane went on to add Back to the Future, Aliens, Predator, Robocop, Total Recall, Terminator II and Tron to the list too.
Star Wars references were plenty in Lightyear and, as fans would know, were also referenced in Toy Story 2 too, which, as previously mentioned, Maclane also worked on too This also makes him the best person to reference, or should we say, rejig, in Lightyear.
The moment is around the earlier movie’s plot twist regarding Buzz Lightyear and that of his nemesis, Zurg. Plot twists and surprising reveals make good movies, and while some of the best twists in cinema are difficult to replicate, Toy Story 2 managed to pull the trick successfully when Zurg revealed himself to be Buzz Lightyear’s father – a scene that mirrors Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
This little established lore may not exactly be followed through in this new take on the character. Viewers will still see Buzz and Zurg confront each other for the first time again, except that it will not play out exactly like how fans expect. Instead, Maclane has chosen another twist that is perhaps, even crazier than what was seen in Toy Story 2.
Without giving away too much, Maclane explained that the change in the relationship and the twist are mainly to create a stronger dichotomy between the movie’s hero and villain.
“How do I talk about the twist without talking about the twist? I think for me, we wanted to figure out something that was satisfying and entertaining. I think to have a good hero, you need a good villain. We needed to have a villain that had a very gettable and understandable point of view,” explained Maclane.
“I think when you see the film, you’ll see that we need to understand why the villain thinks that way. Zurg is already an iconic villain so we needed to have it substantive and have that villain be something that we would go ‘Okay, that’s, that’s interesting. What choices would I make if I were in that villain’s point of view?’And so that to me, makes things more interesting. I think that the best villains are the ones that have the strongest motivation and makes the heroes stronger.”
Creating a stronger dichotomy wasn’t the only thing that Maclane changed for the better of the story. In his journey of bringing Buzz Lightyear back to the screen, Maclane created a different type of Buzz that’s completely separate from the one fans have grown familiar with in the Toy Story franchise.
In Maclane’s belief, Toy Story Buzz was goofier, cartoonish and incredibly palatable for children. Lightyear Buzz is grittier and more serious, and this difference is not without precedence.
“We wanted the Toy Story Buzz to be separate and be a different kind of character. When I grew up, there was like a sci-fi movie and then they would come up with a cartoon show, and then that cartoon show would have toys. The cartoon show would be a little bit softer, will be a little bit goofier and so for me, that’s what the Toy Story Buzz was from,” Maclane rationalised.
“And then I wanted to do it with a little bit harder sci-fi, a little bit more worried about the character’s safety, a little more action. An adventure sci-fi film that was along the lines of Star Wars or some of the even more grittier sci-fi films in the 70s and 80s. That was always the intent.”
The first step to achieving that goal was hiring an actor that could bring this vision of Buzz to life, and that’s where Chris Evans comes in.
“I feel like that’s what we were chasing. We’d seen Chris, he’s a very good dramatic actor, but he’s able to be funny without undercutting the stakes of the character, or the or the situation. And that’s what drew us to him,” said the director.
“You didn’t feel like he was poking fun. It was not a parody of a sci-fi film. It very much is a very serious sci-fi film, but he is able to bring a gravitas that is rare. It was a really great way to partner with him.”
Evans was first announced to voice Buzz Lightyear in 2021. Since then the cast has also expanded to include Uzo Aduba as Alicia Hawthorne, Keke Palmer as Izzy Hawthorne, Taika Waititi as Mo Morrison, Dale Soules as Darby Steel, Peter Sohn as Sox and James Brolin as Zurg.
Disney and Pixar’s Lightyear is now showing in cinemas.