Let’s get one thing out of the way: Pixar’s newest film, Lightyear, is not about “the real Buzz Lightyear,” in the sense of an actual human astronaut who inspired the beloved toy that co-stars in the Toy Story movies. Within the Pixar fiction, Lightyear is a science fiction feature film that came out in the Toy Story world, years before the events of the first Toy Story. The Toy Story movies’ original human protagonist, Andy, might have caught it on VHS or as a TV rerun. In-universe, Lightyear the sci-fi epic is the reason Andy’s world has a Buzz Lightyear animated television series, video game, and line of toys.
But while Lightyear is technically a movie made to exist within the Toy Story universe, the filmmakers didn’t want to lean too hard on any connections to the original Pixar feature.
“I don’t think we look at it as paying tribute, as much as giving us a little bit of grounding, something very specific to launch off of and then tell our own story,” says producer Galyn Susman.
Lightyear’s tone is starkly different from the tone of the Toy Story saga. One thing director Angus McLane wanted to capture in his film was the passage of time. To him, the toy Buzz Lightyear always feels most like a character when he’s at odds with his surroundings, whether he’s thinking he’s a real space hero among a cast of kids’ toys, or he’s being reset into Spanish mode. But the real driver for the movie’s theme came from McLane’s personal experiences working at Pixar.
“It was based around the idea of the way we make movies here. They’re really in four- or five-year chunks,” McLane says. “So that was in the idea of — what would it be like if you felt like you were jumping through time? It really felt like the way we feel when [we’re] making these movies. It takes so long that when you’re finally done, the world seems to have changed. And so that idea was always really emotionally resonant, because we all feel a sense of time, but only when we relate to people who we haven’t seen in a while, or go to places we haven’t been to in a while.”
[Ed. note: Some spoilers ahead for Lightyear’s story.]
In a science fiction setting, that passage of time can be amplified to the utmost degree. Lightyear kicks off with Buzz (Chris Evans) and a spaceship full of rangers and civilians stranded on a planet because of a miscalculation he made. Determined to get them off the distant world, Buzz embarks on a risky test-flight mission. But while four minutes pass for him in space, four years pass back on the planet. His best friend Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) lives a full life — she falls in love with another woman (and smooches her, in Pixar’s first on-screen gay kiss), she rises in her career, and she has a family. Buzz, meanwhile, stubbornly continues his space missions, coming back after each one to find the world has changed in the four years that have elapsed in his absence.
After many iterations of this dynamic, Buzz comes back to find that the world has drastically transformed from what he knows — and his missions have been canceled, as other goals have taken priority over escaping the planet. Buzz finds himself in a lonely new world, one where he’s considered more a legend than a person. (That made Evans, who’s played out-of-time superhero Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2011, a natural fit for the voice role.) From there, the movie kicks into full gear — Buzz still wants to complete his mission, no matter what, even if it means stealing his space-ranger-issued robotic-cat companion and running off.
Lightyear’s first half-hour or so is hardened sci-fi, in a way that feels different from the sweeping galactic romance of WALL-E, Pixar’s other feature-length venture into science fiction. It feels grittier than most American animated movies, but that actually isn’t such a radical departure for Pixar. While Pixar movies remain family-friendly, the studio has never shied away from centering on adult characters dealing with adult problems, whether it’s Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles having a midlife crisis and yearning to relive his glory days, Joe from Soul confronting what really matters in life, or overprotective dad Marlin searching the seas for his last remaining son in Finding Nemo. Recent Pixar movies like Turning Red, Luca, and Onward have leaned more on coming-of-age narratives, but from the get-go, McLane was certain what type of movie he wanted to make.
“When I was a kid, the movies I watched and most resonated with starred adults,” he says. “I never really related to movies about kids, because the stakes always felt so low, or the characters didn’t have a lot to say. I wanted to be transported to a place of what it might be like when I was older. So for me, that was always the thing I wanted to explore, movie-wise. What that led to was trying to make a movie about adults trying to solve their own challenges. There’s a tremendous pull in animation, I feel, to put kids in things, and that’s fine. But that wasn’t really [the story] I was interested in telling.”
There’s still an overarching notion in America that animated movies are solely for kids, so as McLane says, they tend to heavily favor child protagonists. But even though Pixar isn’t making adult animated movies, the studio has shown time and time again that stories about adult characters dealing with adult problems can still be approachable to younger audiences. It’s possible to deal with heavier themes and issues without sanitizing them.
“As far as making it for kids, certainly there are some content things you have to watch out for, but kids are smart,” McLane says. “They’ll figure it out.”
Lightyear hits theaters on June 18.