“Lightyear” has landed … on VOD and Disney+.
The latest Pixar adventure imagines the movie that Andy watched in 1995 that inspired his love of the Buzz Lightyear character. (The actual toy is most likely from a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off, hence the cartoon-y look of the action figure.) “Lightyear” is a rip-roaring ride, with this version of Buzz (now voiced by Chris Evans), attempting to rescue a community of colonists from a hostile planet, after their ship crash lands and their fuel cell is damaged. Combining hard sci-fi with the kind of emotionality you expect from a Pixar movie, it might have been overlooked in theaters but can find a loving audience at home.
Of course, as with any Pixar movie, “Lightyear” went through some major changes along the way to its final version. Here are some of the versions of “Lightyear” that you’ll never see, with commentary from co-writer/director Angus MacLane and producer Gayln Susman. (We used the wonderful “Art of Lightyear,” from Chronicle Books, for reference. And suggest you check out the deleted scenes section of the digital release of “Lightyear” too.) As Susman said at one point during our conversation, “Trust me, you saw the best version of the movie. This was not that.”
Spoilers follow for “Lightyear.”
The Version With an Extra Team Member
Eventually Buzz and his robot cat companion Sox (Peter Sohn) joins forces with some, let’s call them, inexperienced soldiers who are out on a trailing mission when Zurg invades. By sheer happenstance, this team winds up being the last line of defense, even if they aren’t even trainees yet. This group, dubbed the Junior ZAP Patrol (since they were initially hunting nasty space-bugs but also woefully unprepared), includes plucky Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), felonious Darby Steel (Dale Soules) and nervous Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi). But at one point in “Lightyear’s” development, there was a fourth (!) member of the team. Meet Cosmo.
“Cosmo had been a boy and at one time been a girl. Cosmo was another character in their group, and for running time reasons, we had to lose a character,” MacLane explained. “We just got into the issue that we can’t fit anymore dialogue into the second act. Also, Cosmo’s character ended up k fighting with Izzy. There are attributes of Cosmo that ultimately got fused into Izzy. Izzy was, at one point, a little bit more like Buzz, hard-nosed, militaristic. And then Cosmo was a little bit more…”
“Young and techy and fan-girly almost,” Susman added.
“She was hilarious and it was sad to lose her but we didn’t have enough time to fill it out,” MacLane added. (Thankfully you can see Cosmo, in all of her zany energy, in some of the deleted scenes on the digital release.)
Losing Cosmo meant adding another character: a slow, slightly confused robot that tries to help Buzz and the ZAP Patrol get to the opposite side of the hostile planet. (This robot returns in one of the movie’s very funny post-credits scenes.)
“When we lost her, we only had two ZAP Patrol members,” MacLane said. “That’s why we added that robot because we just visually needed the story point of like, These are the toughest group of soldiers you could hope to meet. But yeah, that’s why.”
Not that the robot ever got to go with Buzz and the gang. “The robot was a late edition, which is why the robot doesn’t go on the adventure,” MacLane said. But still, it served a comedic purpose, at least according to MacLane: “In my mind his name is Derek, and it was funnier to have the toughest looking square robot, not be able to get out of the barn. It’s literally, ‘Oh, that reminds me.’ Then just him going back to doing the thing.”
Derek, truly a hero. We’d follow him anywhere.
The Version with Multiple Sox (Soxes?)
During Buzz’s quest to find a workable solution off the planet, he goes on a series of daring test runs, attempting to figure out if the highly unpredictable fuel will be viable. This section of the movie combines “Top Gun: Maverick”-like thrills with somber grace notes, since every time Buzz attempts to get off the planet, he ages minutes while his friends on the planet age years. Imagine a kick-ass version of the “Married Life” montage from “Up.”
This section of the movie also introduces us to the movie’s breakout star: the talking robot cat Sox.
Sox is an emotional support animal for Buzz, someone who can ease his transition back to everyday life after his tumultuous, potentially psychologically straining activity in space. (Earlier in development, he was a monkey, a riff on the early space pioneers. This was wisely changed. Apes are tough to love!) As voiced by Sohn, a Pixar veteran whose next feature as a director “Elemental” opens next year, Sox is straightforward and hugely endearing. And at one point there were many more of him.
In a version of the movie, every time Buzz returned from one of his test flights, he was given a new version of Sox from Star Command. Pretty soon, he had amassed a small army of the cuddly critters. And while this might have gone a long way in creating a super merchandisable character (collect them all, now at Target), it didn’t serve the story in any profound way and was jettisoned into the cold void of space.
Of course, one extra Sox did make it into the final version of the movie: when Buzz confronts the older, alternate universe version of himself he also meets an alternate version of his Sox. This Sox is battle-damaged and looks sort of like the Terminator, with a glowing red eye. They have yet to make toys of this Sox.
The Version Where Zurg Had Dogs
And just as Sox would be the sidekick of our hero, there was a point where some vicious-looking robotic dogs did the bidding of the villainous Zurg (James Brolin). Some even patrolled the planet and chased Buzz after he returned from his final (successful) hyperspace run.
“There were dog robots, yes,” Susman confirmed.
“Originally, when Buzz came to the planet, there was a scene where he crashed. This is before Sox was on the planet. Sox used to stay behind and so Buzz went to the future. The first place he went was back to his apartment and Sox was there, and dusty, and waiting for him. That kind of thing. But there was a whole scene where robot dogs chased Buzz,” MacLane explained.
This scene also contained another element missing from the final “Lightyear:” Buzz’s talking suitcase.
“He had this suitcase that would talk to him like Ivan,” MacLane said, referring to the onboard navigational computer that Buzz can’t stand.
“That sounds really awful as he’s mentioning it,” Susman interjected.
“No, it was awesome,” MacLane continued. “He would go, ‘Oh, you have selected a flare gun. Excellent choice.’ That kind of thing. So the suitcase would offer a color commentary about what items would be selected from the emergency kit.”
I said it when we initially chatted and I’ll say it again now: I am very into the suitcase character. (There’s a throwaway reference to the suitcase robot in one of the deleted scenes on the digital release.) What about Susman? “No. Not so much,” she said.
The Version Where Buzz’s Dad Was the MacGuffin
One of the more contentious aspects of “Lightyear” was the fact that Zurg turns out to be an alternate version of Buzz, instead of Buzz’s father. How outraged you were probably is directly related to how seriously you took what was clearly a one-off joke from “Toy Story 2” (a movie that MacLane worked on as a young animator). And, as it turns out, there was a version of “Lightyear” where Buzz’s dad, named Lawrence Lightyear (a reference to Buzz’s original name being Lunar Larry in the early development stages of the first “Toy Story”), featured prominently.
“We did try Buzz’s father being what Buzz was looking for,” MacLane said. “At the beginning it was like, Buzz is looking for his dad, and his dad went missing, and then you can imagine where that went. But the whole time the audience is like, ‘Yeah, get to it. I know.’ Because either you’re paying that off [or you’re not].”
During production “Ad Astra,” James Gray’s sci-fi movie where astronaut Brad Pitt goes looking for his father (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut that has gone AWOL and is now hiding out with a doomsday device on the far side of the galaxy. “It was very similar,” MacLane said. You can see tons of material related to this version of the story, including a great scene where Buzz interacts with his dad’s robotic pet, a parrot named Polly, in the deleted scenes section of the digital release.
But there were other problems with this storyline too. “What you’re actually setting up is, I don’t know if I want to see a dude fight his dad. You know what I mean? I think that there’s a limit for me, what we were finding emotionally,” MacLane said. Understood.
The Version Where Alicia Was the Villain
While Zurg is revealed to be an alternate universe Buzz (and ultimately thwarted by our good Buzz), there were other villains that were proposed and abandoned, including one genuinely shocking idea that the creative team explored. (This is nowhere to be found in any official materials, so buckle up.)
“There were versions where the antagonist was different,” MacLane said. “And there was always the questions of, ‘What do I want to watch? What is satisfying to the audience?’ There was even a version where there was the antagonist ended up being what is now the Alisha character.”
Alisha is Izzy’s grandmother and Buzz’s original Space Ranger partner (she is voiced by “Orange is the New Black” star Uzo Aduba). As Buzz attempts to find a solution to get off the planet, he watches as Izzy ages, marries, and has a family, while Buzz only ages a few minutes each time. Their relationship is the emotional center of the movie; making her a bad guy would have thrown audiences for quite a loop, something that the filmmakers fully admit.
“It was surprising, but it was upsetting because you’re like, I don’t want them to be against each other. They’re best friends. I don’t have the energy to deal with that,” MacLane said. Susman then added: “Yeah, that was really dark.”
“Lightyear” is on Disney+ and VOD right now.