As audiences return to local cinemas after two years of lockdown, Hollywood is hoping that the nostalgia factor will be the incentive needed to jump-start the summer box office. First up were two highly anticipated live-action adventures–Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Top Gun: Maverick–and now Disney/Pixar is bringing us the definitive origin story of one of their most popular animated characters, Buzz Lightyear. The Space Ranger (originally voiced by Tim Allen) has been a massive part of the multi-decade success of the Toy Story franchise and has finally earned a movie of his very own.
Ahead of the new film’s release, Lightyear’s cast and its filmmakers held court at a virtual press conference where they shared a host of titillating tales and tidbits from behind the scenes of the production. Chris Evans (the new voice of Buzz) and co-stars Keke Palmer, James Brolin, Taika Waititi, Peter Sohn and Dale Soules weighed in on the brilliance of working with the legendary animation studio, while director Angus MacLane, producer Galyn Susman and composer Michael Giacchino gave us insight into building a space saga from next-to-scratch.
Here are just 7 things we learned from the event:
How Can A “Toy” Have an Origin Story?
Right off the bat, MacLane answered the biggest question on our minds: How can Buzz Lightyear, Andy’s beloved toy, have a back story that involves more than just plastic packaging? Turns out, coming up with the answer was one of the easiest elements of production. The writers decided that since the action figure we all know and love as Buzz was based around a character in Andy’s favourite sci-fi adventure film, why not make that original film? So Lightyear is the original film Andy saw and fell in love with, and Buzz is its star. This stroke of storytelling genius is also a tidy way to explain Chris Evans taking over as the voice of the film’s hero.
An interesting tidbit that the director shared: Though Lightyear is an animated film in our world, it would’ve been live action in Andy’s. Wrap your heads around that one!
How is Lightyear’s Buzz different to Toy Story’s Buzz?
Speaking about this latest iteration of the legendary Space Ranger, Evans shared why he’s so excited about showing audiences a new side to Buzz: “Just getting to explore a character that we all know so well in a slightly more nuanced interpretation, you know what I mean? The Buzz that we all know is obviously a toy—and as a toy, there are certain ways that they can move through the world without the weight that we may carry.”
Evans also addressed the fact that this Buzz is gifted a support pet to help him deal with the experiences and heaviness he does carry with him. That even heroes like Buzz need someone to talk or confide in. It’s an important piece of the hero we get to know here and the actor was a fan of showing that more human, more vulnerable side.
Getting to voice the character in a new, more-layered, more human environment was clearly an opportunity the actor relished but when asked which other classic Disney hero he’d love to portray, Evans didn’t even hesitate: Robin Hood. He’s a sassy fox and a hero–what’s not to love? The actor acknowledged he’d be an unlikely choice given Robin is quintessentially English but we can’t take issue with his taste in animated outlaws.
Where did the filmmakers start in building the ideas for Lightyear?
MacLane explained that, for him, the starting point for something like Lightyear is “what set pieces do we want to see?” And with that answered, then he moves on to thinking about what the overall emotional hook will be. The fertile ground the team decided to explore here was a type of thriller–a genre that Disney/Pixar had yet to explore. And though it’s hard to think of Lightyear without categorizing it as science fiction, the director was quick to point out that he sees that piece as more the “condiment on top of the meal”. Start with the thriller and then coat it with classic genre influences and traditions.
If you look very closely, you’ll see visuals nods and homages to classics like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey throughout Lightyear, but the filmmaking team wanted them to be subtle enough that they wouldn’t distract from the overall story.
What made Keke Palmer fall in love with her character, Izzy?
The Hustlers actress particularly connected with the young woman’s love for her grandmother, Alisha–Buzz’s Space Ranger partner, and with her drive to carry on her family’s legacy of strong, fearless women: “She wants to make her family proud—and that’s something that I think we all can relate to.” There’s also the lessons that Izzy learns along the way. Like other characters in the film, Palmer points out that the young woman learns to embrace her fear and uses it to push her forward. Add to that Izzy’s ability to adapt to any situation, to find something positive in everyone and to empower those around her, including Buzz, and it’s easy to see why audiences might fall for Izzy Hawthorne too.
Which Lightyear themes resonated most with the cast?
Actor Taika Waititi admits that, like Buzz, he’s made mistakes in his time and wanted to rectify them, to be a kind of hero–both to others and to himself. But the film’s central idea of appreciating what you have in the here and now hugely appealed to the actor: “This idea of seeking something that’s ‘out there,’ something in the future, something that’s not tangible and real, rather than what’s around you in the here and now. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.”
But what’s the sci-fi equivalent to that old chestnut? Waititi wasn’t sure, but as he joked with the moderator, the actor landed on another theme entirely: “All the grass is here on Earth. We should never have left Earth. That’s the main takeaway from this movie.” He may have been joking, but he almost riffed his way right into a Wall-E sequel.
Waititi also shared his theory of what it is that sets Disney/Pixar films apart: “The relentless pursuit of a perfect story.” And as a filmmaker, he also admitted to shamelessly “ripping them off” in his own work. After all, why mess with a formula that works?
What make the film’s breakout feline, Sox, so endearing?
The actor behind the lovable but robotic emotional support pet, Peter Sohn, thinks it may be because Sox has more canine than cat about him. “He’s loyal, like a dog,” Sohn explains, “and I could totally jump into the idea of that like, ‘Whatever you want, Buzz! I’ll bring you your snacks, I’ll fetch your newspapers!’”
But when asked whether there was a spin-off in the works for Sox, the actor demurred, joking: “I don’t want any of that burden, what are you talking about? Let Chris have the burden. I love playing Sox. But yeah, I don’t know anything about that!”
Where does Michael Giacchino go for inspiration when composing something like a sci-fi adventure?
In response to a question posed by That Shelf, Giacchino admitted that though he starts from scratch for each new film score, there is a laundry list of movies that he looked to when pulling together ideas for Lightyear, including the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, movies have always influenced him, even from his earliest movie-going experiences.
“What I used to do was sneak a small tape recorder into the movie theatres when I was a kid, and I would record the movie audio—and it would have the audience response, all of that, on it. There was no VHS when I was growing up; there was no internet, nothing, so the only way for me to experience that movie again, when it was out of theatres, was to listen to it. So I would record them, and then I would sit at home and every night I would play them under my pillow. Because I loved to listen [to] how the sound worked in these movies, and how music worked with sound effects and dialogue and all of that. It’s ingrained in my head in a massive way.”
Disney and Pixar’s Lightyear opens in theatres on June 17.