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What Is ‘Lightyear’, Exactly? How Pixar’s Space Epic Fits Into the ‘Toy Story’ Universe

Director Angus MacLane walks TheWrap through the meta nature and ’80s influences of Pixar’s next film

In December 2020, “Lightyear” was announced as part of the Disney Investors Day, a presentation meant to drum up interest in upcoming Disney projects while assuring the market that, yes, 2020 was a very lousy year but there’s plenty to get excited about still. Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter explained that “Lightyear” wasn’t a new “Toy Story” film, exactly, but rather the film that inspired the toy that Andy loved so dearly. Instead of Tim Allen voicing the character, this version of Buzz would be voiced by Chris Evans.

While this seemed straightforward, the Internet was immediately confused. Part of this had to do with Evans’ tweet that immediately followed the announcement that read, in part, “Just to be clear, this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on,” and some fuzzy messaging around the announcement, both of which implied that Buzz Lightyear was a real person in this fictional “Toy Story” universe.

With “Lightyear” just a few weeks away, and after talking to the filmmakers behind the movie, we can now clear up all confusion about what this latest Pixar feature really is.

A Movie Based on a Show Based on a Movie

Simply put, “Lightyear” is the movie that Andy saw that made him want a Buzz Lightyear toy. During a panel with director Angus MagLane that TheWrap attended, MacLane explained that Andy might not even have watched “Lightyear” when it was a new movie. To MacLane, the movie was made in the late 1970s or early 1980s. This would have been before Andy’s time. But he still could have seen it.

MacLane took it one step further, saying that the Buzz Lightyear toy (immortalized in the “Toy Story” films) could have been based on an animated spin-off that aired after the original movie. (Much in the same way that 1986’s animated “The Real Ghostbusters” followed the original 1984 live-action feature “Ghostbusters.”) “I always thought about how those shows where ‘RoboCop’ had… There was a cartoon show for ‘RoboCop.’ And then you got toys based on that,” MacLane told TheWrap. “A lot of times, a more serious sci-fi movie didn’t necessarily have toys, but the animated show did. Coming from a toy fan that felt specific, but there’s so many people that are not going to get that. And, you go, Andy saw this movie, you’ll love it. Okay.”

Intrepid Pixar fans have already figured this out. “There was a guy on Twitter that was like, ‘Is this actually an in universe movie where this is based on a thing?’ Like he mapped it all out,” MacLane said. “He’s totally right.”

Disney/Pixar

If there was a scene-stealer from the “Lightyear” footage Pixar we saw, it was Sox, a robotic cat that is voiced by Pixar stalwart Peter Sohn, who becomes Buzz’s erstwhile sidekick. Given MacLane’s love of “Aliens,” we had to wonder: did Sox ever look more like a descendant of Jonesy, the cat on the Nostromo that survives with Ripley?

As it turns out, no.

“We tried different colors even, and I ended up going with orange because it just stood out better from the rest of the outfits,” MacLane admitted. “Obviously between Morris the cat [a spokes-cat for 9Lives cat food] to Garfield to Jonesy, there’s a rich history of orange cats in popular culture, but it just ended up being a contrast thing. And I wanted him to be kind of Muppet-y. He’s got the Henson stitch and he feels very much like a robot of that time.”

Teddy Ruxpin’s ears are burning.

Yes, “Lightyear” Is Heavily Influenced by 1980s Movies

“Lightyear’s” movie aesthetic is beautifully blocky, perfectly selling the idea that it would have been released alongside early 1980s and late 1970s classics from the period. (For the record, MacLane’s favorite movie is James Cameron’s “Aliens.”)

“The visual aesthetic is a collection of different things, just stuff that I think is cool and fun and tactile,” MacLane said. “You can see in the design of sci-fi, well there’s ‘Star Wars’ and then ‘Aliens’ combines real-world tactical military stuff with an industrial design functionality, that’s really interesting. And, then when you get to ‘District 9,’ how it brings in more anime influence into that design aesthetic. And that’s pretty much a straight line from ‘Star Wars.’ And, then before that it’s ‘2001.’ There’s a lot of those feelings, but there’s a pocket in there in the ’80s of consumer electronics and there was just this wonderful sense of goofy push button chunk that I’ve always enjoyed.”

In a pivotal moment in the footage that was screened for critics, Buzz has a piece of sophisticated hardware that he takes out of his dash and blows on it like it’s a Nintendo game cartridge. It’s wonderful and totally relatable and again establishes “Lightyear” as a high-tech movie set in a very specific time and place.

Of course this design principle extends to the movie’s many, many robots. “That’s also reflected in the robot designs of that era, like ‘RoboCop 2’ and of all the way to ‘The Black Hole,’ which is movie I don’t love, but there’s wonderful design aesthetics of that. But it’s not as streamlined as that,” MacLane said. “It’s definitely more like ‘Star Trek II’ than ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’ you know what I mean?”

We do!

MacLane also pointed to the way that “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” smartly reused sets. “There were lessons in that of like what the audience is getting used to what they want for world expansion and how you can maximize the budget you have to reuse stuff smartly to get something across,” MacLane said.

No Faux Movie Silliness

Of course, the idea of “Lightyear” being a sort of movie within a movie universe, it begs the question of how far does this shtick go? One person asked MacLane during the press conference if he had thought about the actor who played Buzz in this movie. MacLane dismissed this as being too meta and taking away from the central idea of a rousing sci-fi action movie that would bewitch a young boy in the early 1990s and lead to him getting his favorite new toy.

And the other part of it that doesn’t factor into this new story of “Lightyear” is that there’s nothing to suggest it is a movie; there aren’t strings coming off the otherworldly creatures (there are plenty!), no zippers on the back of the robot’s bodies. This is another aspect that MacLane didn’t want; it was also deemed too distracting.

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Having watched 30 minutes of “Lightyear,” there is no winking at the audience. Nothing is played for laughs (except, you know, the actual jokes). Instead, it’s straightforward and totally effective – a gorgeously rendered sci-fi movie full of big ideas, thrilling action set pieces, cool robots and above all, a new angle on Buzz Lightyear that is both delightfully unexpected and totally of a piece. If you love Buzz – any Buzz – chances are you’ll love “Lightyear.”

“Lightyear” opens exclusively in theaters on June 17, 2022.

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