What Exactly Is Pixar’s Lightyear?

What Exactly Is Pixar’s Lightyear?
Buzz and his fellow ranger, Alicia, voiced by Uzo Aduba. (Image: Pixar)

The idea behind Pixar’s Lightyear is simultaneously genius and confusing. For starters, we all know Buzz Lightyear as one of the main characters in the popular Toy Story franchise. Buzz is a space toy, voiced by Tim Allen, that a boy named Andy is gifted for his birthday. But why did Andy want a Buzz Lightyear toy? Well, this new movie explains that Buzz was the main character of Andy’s favourite movie. That movie was called Lightyear, and this summer, Pixar is releasing Andy’s favourite movie for the entire world.

Angus MacLane, the writer and director of Lightyear, explained where the idea came from. “One day after eating corn on the cob with my father, I saw a movie that changed my life: Star Wars,” MacLane said during a recent press event. “And after I saw Star Wars, all I wanted to play was Star Wars. All I wanted to draw was Star Wars. Star Wars was my religion. And it lasted for years.”

“I’ve always wondered, ‘What movie was Buzz from? Why couldn’t we just make that movie?’,” MacLane continued. “So that’s what we did. Lightyear [is] the movie that Andy saw that changed his life. Andy’s Star Wars. A sci-fi epic designed to inspire a new generation.” Check out a brand new trailer below:

Comparing Lightyear to Star Wars makes sense for a multitude of reasons. Star Wars is not just a sci-fi adventure that inspired millions, and a franchise intrinsically connected to its toys, it has a huge segment of its fandom obsessed with canon. Since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, every new Star Wars movie, book, comic, show, and more all fit into the same singular story. One big, interconnected universe. Previous Pixar movies have also linked together, both with direct sequels, prequels, and Easter eggs, but Lightyear is the first movie that expands that universe beyond the films. It acknowledges a life off the screen. Although those connections don’t necessarily have any bearing on the film itself, they’re really fun to think about.

“I imagined this was a movie that then later, there was a spinoff cartoon,” MacLane explained. “And then the Toy Story toy was made off of that cartoon design. That very much was the way it would be in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There would be a big-budget movie, like a serious movie, and then it would get ported to a TV show. It’s not diminishing anything about it. But it does feel like the events of what happens on the back of the package for Buzz Lightyear [the toy] don’t happen in this movie.”

What does happen in this movie is that we meet a heroic human named Buzz Lightyear. Buzz is on a space mission, goes off course to explore a mysterious planet, and makes a crucial mistake along the way. As a result, he and his entire crew find themselves marooned. For a whole year, everyone works together to figure out a way to escape this alien planet but when Buzz makes the attempt, things do not go well. Gizmodo saw about 30 minutes from the beginning of the film and in true Pixar fashion, we were completely surprised but how gut-wrenchingly emotional the first act was.

That this new Buzz is now a “real-life” character and not a cartoon-inspired toy explains why there was a need to have someone else be the voice of Buzz Lightyear instead of Toy Story legend Tim Allen. “From early on, because the voice is so iconic, you run the risk of imitation,” MacLane said. “And I never wanted is someone that was gonna imitate that character voice. What I wanted is something to be different.” So Pixar went with Captain America himself, Chris Evans. “There was a lot of comedy and serious action stuff that we’d seen Chris Evans do and I was always impressed by his ability to not seem too goofy but be able to laugh at himself,” MacLane said. “And I think that’s really essential for the character.”

What’s not as essential, but is no less fascinating, is how much deeper MacLane thought about the reality of Lightyear. We know it was a movie that Andy saw and loved that was made into an animated TV show, which is the basis for the toy he got. But things go even deeper than that.

Of course Zurg, voiced by James Brolin, is in Lightyear. (Image: Pixar)Of course Zurg, voiced by James Brolin, is in Lightyear. (Image: Pixar)

If you go by the year the actual movie, Toy Story, was made, Andy got the Buzz Lightyear toy in 1995. And anyone who was a kid in the 1990s knows you probably saw your favourite movie one way and one way only. “[Lightyear] is more like his favourite movie that he saw on VHS,” MacLane said. His belief is that, in the Toy Story world, Lightyear was released in the “early ‘80s, late ‘70s.” You know, around the same time as Star Wars. And, like Star Wars, it wasn’t just one movie.

“I think in the world [of Toy Story] maybe there were three [Lightyear] movies,” MacLane said to Gizmodo in a follow-up interview. “Then there was like an Ewoks or a Droids show, which is what the Buzz Lightyear toy is from.” (He even explains that in his mind, the reason Al’s Toy Barn in Toy Story 2 is filled with Buzz and Zurg toys, but not the other characters from the film, is that they’re “perennial figures [the toy company] reused the moulds for.”)

Despite all this super nerdy deep-dive stuff though, MacLane wants to be very clear: none of this has any bearing on the movie itself. “I never wanted a feeling that you were pulled out of the film,” he said. “I just wanted to branch off and get away from the Toy Story universe, so that it exists on its own. If you remind the audience of it being a movie too much, then they stop caring about the peril of the characters.” However, those ideas behind Lighyear’s fake origins did have an impact on its look and design. Movies in the 1970s and 1980s were filled with grounded, analogue, practical effects, and though Lightyear is a highly advanced, 2022 CGI animated film, the technology portrayed is the opposite.

Concept art of Buzz and some of the universe's technology. (Image: Pixar)Concept art of Buzz and some of the universe’s technology. (Image: Pixar)

“A basic rule of thumb in our world, [is that] there are no touch screens or cloud sharing in the world of Lightyear,” sets art director Greg Peltz said. “We envisioned the push-button world that was thick, geometric, and analogue. 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.” You know, kind of like a toy. It all comes back to toys.

So, to recap: Pixar’s 2022 movie Lightyear is a sci-fi action-adventure that stands on its own. But, if you’re a Toy Story fan, you can imagine you’re watching a hit, blockbuster film released in the 1970s or 1980s. A film then that had two sequels and, a few years later, spawned an animated TV show [which you can choose to believe is the actual TV show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, though it was not a Pixar production]. Toys were then made based on that show and a young boy named Andy, a fan of the original film, got one for his birthday. Now, finally, on June 16, we get to see if Andy’s favourite movie becomes ours too.

Lightyear opens June 16. We’ll have more soon.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Lightyear is slated for release in Australia on June 16. While you wait, why not check out all the other sci-fi, adventure, horror and fantasy flicks hitting cinemas in Australia this year.