In the year and a half since Chris Evans (who voices Buzz Lightyear in Lightyear) tweeted his explanation of what Lightyear even is, there’s been, say, some confusion. To the point, I don’t even want to link to Evans’s tweet because the purpose of what you’re reading now is to explain exactly what this movie is by talking to both the director, Angus MacLane, and producer, Galyn Susman. Now, what’s interesting is how Lightyear starts, with a simple, three-sentence explanation.
“In 1995 Andy got a toy. That toy is from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”
According to MacLane, it was Andrew Stanton (who co-wrote Toy Story and directed WALL-E) who was adamant THAT the explanation had to be simple and to the point. This was correct. At my media screening, this explanation got applause.
In Lightyear, Buzz Lightyear is a Space Ranger who finds himself, with the rest of his crew, marooned on a far away planet. Every time Buzz tests the hyperspeed, it sends him a few years into the future. So every time he returns to the planet after a failed attempt, everyone he knows has aged, though Buzz has not. But Buzz is determined to get everyone back home, even though a good number of the crew have had full lives on this new planet. Buzz is also joined by Sox, a robot cat and what is sure to be the breakout star of this movie.
Now, that’s not to say there’s not more to get into the weeds about. Like, for instance, does that mean Lightyear came out in 1995? Well, MacLane says it came out in 1986. And by the time Andy got his Buzz Lightyear toy, it was more how in real life there were The Real Ghostbusters toys based off the animated series, not the original movie Ghostbusters. Anyway, yes, ahead, we got into the weeds quite a bit, culminating with the influences that properties like Aliens, G.I. Joe (the toys, not the cartoon), and even The Black Hole influenced Lightyear.
Warning, this all gets pretty dorky:
At my media screening the opening three sentences, “In 1995 Andy got a toy. The toy is based on a movie. This is that movie,” got applause.
Angus MacLane: Oh yeah. All right. That’s great to hear. Oh, that’s wonderful.
I could almost hear you sighing during those three sentences, like, okay, one last time.
Angus MacLane: There was a lot of concern that you just hadn’t been able to communicate what this was. Fast forward to today, where we’ve gotten questions about whether or not it’s animation or live-action in Andy’s world. And if so, who are the actors that portrayed Buzz and who was the key grip? So the people are excited about the backstory. I’m glad that cleared things up.
Well, now that you brought it up, I guess there would be an actor, right? An actor is playing Buzz Lightyear in the movie that Andy likes. Right?
Angus MacLane: I guess, but I’ll level with you, we just said that so we could just make a cool sci-fi movie. We didn’t really spend a lot of time digging into the Wikipedia of things not appearing in the film. But know that we did treat it with respect to make it something that was legitimate and awesome and not try to expand the world without diminishing from it.
Did you have a conference with other people to come up with that very simple three-sentence explanation that really clears up the premise?
Angus MacLane: There’s a great story with that. Andrew Stanton wrote that. He was just like, “No, no, no. Here, I’ll boil it down to three sentences.” Because there was some confusion about how are we going to set this up? And he’s like, “No, three sentences.” And it’s helpful to have such an exceptional writer as your executive producer, because he was able to just boil it down. And that’s how we went with that. The wording is really clean.
I know I’m getting in the weeds a bit but you just said you just wanted to make a cool sci-fi movie. But is it supposed to be a sci-fi movie from the lens of 1995?
Angus MacLane: Well, okay. I don’t want to pull out the nerd card. Actually, technically, Andy received Buzz Lightyear in 1995. The movie is not specified as from 1995. The movie I imagine is actually from 1986, maybe 1985. So it’s a little earlier. He saw the movie on VHS a lot. And then after that movie, maybe there were other movies, but then there was a TV show. Like Ghostbusters. You know? Then The Real Ghostbusters. And then The Real Ghostbusters had their own toy line with Kenner.
I had those, yes.
Angus MacLane: Andy’s Buzz Lightyear is from The Real Ghostbusters. But that’s even harder to say at the beginning of the film. Luckily, we have our 15 minutes, so I can get into the weeds with you. But if you really want to know…
Angus MacLane: That’s the lineage. It’s like Droids or Ewoks to Return of the Jedi. It’s like a little different.
So Tim Allen is the Lorenzo Music of Buzz Lightyear? Because Lorenzo Music did the Peter Venkman voice. And then I believe he was replaced by Dave Coulier in the third season…
Angus MacLane: In subsequent seasons. But Lorenzo Music is perhaps most famous for what?
Angus MacLane: He was Garfield, but he was also on Alice.
I think it was Rhoda.
Angus MacLane: On Rhoda! Anyway, great voice actor. And there was the 2D animated Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Even that was a different voice. Like, the toy is often not voiced by the actor.
Right. Robert Downey Jr. is not doing Iron Man toy voices.
Angus MacLane: Jim Hanks does the Woody dolls. There’s a little bit of a different. Because the toy world is so first and foremost in my mind, there’s a lot of that, that’s a truth that we were playing with. More than any of that, Buzz is a different character. From this standpoint, he was a side character in Toy Story. He’s a main character in this and he has to do different things. He’s not the comic relief. He’s humorous, but he’s not the source of comedy the way he is in Toy Story. Like Sox or Izzy, the side characters, how they bounce off of Buzz is where the comedy comes from. So Buzz has to carry more emotional and dramatic weight.
So Lightyear came out in 1986. In Andy’s world, is Lightyear the biggest movie of 1986?
Angus MacLane: Not to Andy. Andy likes Aliens maybe a little bit more. But then it’s right after Aliens, I would say. I’m sure you find it fascinating. But Aliens is pretty awesome.
Galyn Susman: Aliens is awesome.
Angus MacLane: It’s hard to beat. It’s my favorite movie. We haven’t really got into what Andy’s top 10 is for 1986.
Galyn Susman: No, we definitely have not done that, no.
Well, Disney owns Aliens now, so…
Angus MacLane: It turns out when the same company owns the property, you still have to go through legal.
Galyn Susman: Oh yeah.
Angus MacLane: Oh yeah. So the very direct Aliens references in this film were cleared through the legal departments of both Disney and 20th Century Fox.
Why would that be necessary?
Angus MacLane: I don’t know. But boy, was it hilarious to me. I was like, how many hours can you bill having the same company talk to itself? That was pretty exciting.
Galyn Susman: That might actually be why, now that you said it.
Or maybe they have to ask James Cameron or something like that?
Angus MacLane: Yeah. That might be the case.
Sox the cat rules, by the way.
Angus MacLane: It’s a robot cat. I think we wanted to have the cute thing. We wanted a side character that would connect to Buzz and be a loyal character, but would be humorous for his genuine, just his truth and his him being so virtuous and helpful. I don’t know. Why do we like Sox? I think he’s funny.
Galyn Susman: Because he’s cute. He’s funny.
I’ve seen a lot of “Why doesn’t this look like a movie from 1995?” Or 1986, now. But I’m not sure a kid today wants to see a movie that uses 1995 animation technology.
Angus MacLane: Like matte lines. We could have done bad matte lines and rear projection…
Then every kid is asking, “Why does every ship have a big box around it as it flies?”
Angus MacLane: I mean, that’s a lot of energy for diminishing returns, I would say. Aliens, it still holds up really well with the exception of those rear projection shots, which are charming, but the miniature work looks so good. We think of it more like an idealized version of that. There is film grain, there is atmospherics from that era, but it’s meant to be an idealized version of that.
You didn’t reference “game over” in Lightyear.
Angus MacLane: That’s too obvious. I don’t want any reference to pull you out of the movie. There are subtle things that are just Easter eggs for the fans on the third viewing, when they’re looking in the upper left-hand corner because they’ve seen it.
If Mr. Paul Reiser made a cameo, would that be too obvious, or just right?
Angus MacLane: That would be fine. There isn’t anyone from Aliens in the film. But there’s lots of nerd infusion in the cast. Mary McDonald-Lewis was Lady Jaye on G.I. Joe. She was the voice of OnStar, but she was also Lady Jaye in G.I. Joe. And so that’s where I happened to know that nerd fact. So I was like, “Yeah, let’s get Lady Jaye in the movie.”
I have the Lady Jaye action figure on a shelf right next to me.
Angus MacLane: Do have the Spirit with Freedom?
Angus MacLane: Let me check it out!
Galyn Susman: I’m going to sit back and let you nerd yourself out.
Angus MacLane: Yeah, this is great. Oh, this is great. There are some G.I. Joe references in the film that are really obscure.
Angus MacLane: Well, I would say there’s a design language of the toys. If you think about how G.I. Joe, the toys, and say the graphics, the sticker sheets, there’s a language to that that we looked at to have the solidity. More from the toys than from the cartoon. So the Zap Patrol outpost feels a little bit like it could be a G.I. Joe style. There’s a feeling to that world. It’s really oblique, but the design of the ships feels a little bit like a chunky G.I. Joe. Their ship looks a little bit like it could be a G.I. Joe vehicle. So I love the design language of those toys and that world and the graphics, that simplicity and clarity. It’s not meant to be a direct reference, but it’s really inspired by that kind of world. Toys were how we relived a lot of the adventures in the movies that we saw, because we didn’t have a way to re-see it.
For me, I saw some The Black Hole in Lightyear.
Angus MacLane: I love the robot design in that. Certainly, Maximilian. That movie is not good, unfortunately.
It’s very strange. I just re-watched it a couple weeks ago.
What did you think a few weeks ago? Because I re-watched part of it, too.
It’s pretty intense for a Disney movie from that era. Anthony Perkins gets drilled to death.
Angus MacLane: That’s one of the few things that I remember from that, but I always loved Maximilian and the Mego toys of that line.
Have you seen the Maximilian Mego figure?
I have the new Diamond Select.
Angus MacLane: Oh yeah! The Diamond Select. They did pretty good. I like that. I don’t have the large scale original V.I.N.CENT. But yeah. I love those toys.
Galyn Susman:: I was just going to say, can we just leave this all open and I’ll leave and you guys can nerd out?
Yeah, I think we got carried away…
Galyn Susman: No, this is a highlight of the thing for him.
‘Lightyear’ opens this Friday, June 17th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.