Buzz Lightyear returns to theaters this week, but he looks and sounds a bit different. In Lightyear, Chris Evans voices the title character, as Pixar uses the character to tell a brand new sci-fi adventure story – presented as the movie Andy from Toy Story was obsessed with that made him want that Buzz toy so bad in the first place.
The story finds Buzz and a ship full of space travelers trapped on an alien planet with no way to get back home. As Buzz begins test flight after test flight to try and solve their hyperdrive issue, it’s quickly discovered that thanks to time dilation, each of his trips – while only taking a few minutes from his perspective – is taking around four years for those back on the planet. And so Buzz finds everyone growing older and changing around him, as he essentially stays the same… And then, one day, he returns from another mission to find an invading group of robots now have the humans under siege, under the command of their fearsome leader, Zurg.
I spoke to Chris Evans and his co-stars, along with filmmakers Angus MacLane and Galyn Susman to discuss how Lightyear fits into the grand tradition of Pixar movies making you cry, the evolution of the film’s sci-fi world, and why you’re gonna be obsessed with Sox, the robot cat.
THOSE PIXAR FEELS
Lightyear is a fun space adventure first and foremost and plays as such, and yet there it is… a moment in the film’s first half hour that will have many audience members getting weepy (it certainly did for me).
Asked about Pixar’s ability to hit those emotional beats so well, Chris Evans remarked, “I don’t know how they do it. It’s just that combination of story and character and music. They just nail it. I remember the first time I saw Up, I saw it with a buddy of mine. We were two 30-something guys watching the movie and I didn’t know it was gonna be the best love story of all time in the first 10 minutes. And you’re sobbing right away. I don’t know what their magic is, but they just know how to do it.”
Taika Waititi, who voiced one of Buzz’s vastly untrained makeshift allies, Mo Morrison, remarked, “It’s crazy, isn’t it? I’m the same with Up and Inside Out and Toy Story 3… I think the worlds that they create have super relatable characters and also very universal, relatable themes.”
Waitii added that he felt it was the same with Lightyear and that he loved its theme of, “Don’t let the mistakes of the past define you and hold you back. You’ve got to let go of the past and stop living in the past. Whatever the dream is, or whatever the thing is that you think is out there, it may not be as important as what’s right here around you in the now.”
James Brolin, who noted he grew up with classic characters like Mickey Mouse, said when Pixar arrived on the scene, “I just think from the beginning, they thought out who their audience was, how to do it, how to actually change the tenure of what animation was… This is very real in a lot of places, isn’t it? And because of that these characters start to become real to you and stab at the emotions.”
Lightyear director Angus MacLane has been with Pixar since 1997, and when asked what the company’s secret is to them making us cry, he replied, “I feel like Pixar does a good job of creating characters and then putting them through the wringer and I think that’s really what you want in a film.”
He then jokingly added, “As far as the tears, we have a whole wing at the studio for this kind of thing. When the film is ready, we’re able to put it into this special algorithm for crying. And they tell us if it’s sad enough.”
BOW BEFORE SOX
One thing is very clear watching Lightyear: Sox is a standout. The robot cat companion Buzz is given by Star Command is our hero’s only constant through his adventures and is an incredibly funny and endearing character, voiced by Pixar’s own Peter Sohn, director of The Good Dinosaur.
Pondering how big Sox mania will be once the film opens, Waiti said, “Ginormous, is that a word? Humongous? What happened with Grogu, it’s gonna be on that level, I think. I’ve already got two with my daughters; one Sox each. And they’re obsessed by this little guy, Plus I think we all love the idea of just an emotional support cat – a little companion that hangs out with you, who is also a scientist, and it’s just supportive the entire time. That’s all humans want. is just to be supported and be seen.”
Brolin noted that a key component in a film, especially for a lead character, is “the reaction in the film to whatever that action is and Sox is the reactor. He’s got an opinion about everything, right? And it’s fun because that’s kind of who we are as an audience.”
Said MacLane, “Sox came together really early into the process. And we immediately recognized the value of that… Sox was always like, “Oh, well, if we have a story problem, we put Sox in there and have him solve it.’”
Sohn was originally asked to provide the “scratch” (as in temporary) recording for Sox, only for the filmmakers to love his voice for the character and never replace him – something that has been known to happen for Pixar projects, including the recent Turning Red, where the lead character, Mei Lee, was voiced by Rosalie Chiang, who was originally only hired to provide scratch.
Said Lightyear producer Galyn Susman, “Having Peter Sohn do the scratch, we knew right away. He’s so warm and personable and he’s got this intelligent innocence in his voice. It was like, ‘I guess we’re gonna have to keep him!’”
Evans had heard the highly enthusiastic audience reaction to Sox the night before we spoke, at the film’s world premiere, and remarked, “God, people love Sox. I mean, he’s pretty great, isn’t he? I’m obsessed with Sox, so I have no doubt the world will feel the same.”
We got small mentions of Star Command and the Space Rangers in the Toy Story films, based on what the toy Buzz thought to be real at one point, and then the animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command fleshed out that world much more.
Lightyear is not set in the universe of either of those projects, but MacClane said they did keep it all in mind, explaining, “We looked at the Toy Story films and wrote down all of the mentioned lore from the films and tried to figure out an elegant way to use as much of it as we could. And then based on that, we figured out what kind of things we would need for the narrative. And then we would kind of fill in the pieces for Star Command. But I also wanted to not overly explain Star Command or the Space Rangers because I find sometimes when you over-explain things too much, backstory wise, it tends to fill in too much of the cracks. One of the things I enjoyed very much about earlier sci-fi films was how much they left to your imagination.”
Pixar films are known to evolve and change in some notable ways during their production and Evans said that was the case for Lightyear as well, which made for interesting experiences coming in to record his dialogue sessions. Recalled Evans, “Every time you go in to do a new one, they would give you new pages, and they would say, ‘Okay, so you know last time how this, this and this happened? Now, that’s out. What now happens is this…’ And you’re like, ‘Oh man, it’s it’s completely new story!’ But that’s the beauty of Pixar filmmaking. It really is like a potter’s wheel. They take four years to kind of shape this thing. And every session you give them, they run back and they do these little temp animations. And all these creative minds come together, and they have discussions and they massage the story until it gets to a point that really resonates. But that involves big changes along the way.”
Susman said design-wise, they always knew they wanted to take inspiration from films from a time before Pixar, explaining that even while the film was made with computer generated animation, “We definitely wanted to sort of avoid that clean, crisp CG, nobody’s touched the surface kind of thing. Things have gotten very pristine and so we were looking back towards the 80s and towards the 70s and the use of practical models and the warmth that those have. Surfaces have to have curves to them and thickness to them and all this the stuff that practical models provide that CG basically doesn’t. You have to really work at it to make CG look that way. And so that was really our focus is to try to give it that tactile feeling.”
THE HAWTHORNE FACTOR
A big throughline in Lightyear is Buzz’s friendship with fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) and how that carries on with her granddaughter, Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer) – even as the younger Hawthorne’s lack of experience is difficult for Buzz to reconcile with the trusted expert Alisha was.
Alisha and Izzy was one case where the story changed, MacClane revealed, explaining, “Originally, they were not related, oddly, but what came about was we wanted Buzz to have a relationship up front that was very much a mentor and a friend. Someone that he connected to and that represented his social life, his world. And then Izzy was a character that personified Buzz’s inability to trust inexperienced crew members. And even though she had all of the book learning, she hadn’t necessarily had the field experience. And so it was all about how those characters can modify our hero.”
Said Susman, of Izzy, “By being the granddaughter that’s ever present, it’s also a reminder of the life that he missed that he wasn’t a participant in in the first act. So it’s a good challenge and emotional anchor for Buzz.”
MacClane had a lot of praise for Aduba and Palmer, saying they brought unique traits to both characters but also a similar core appeal to represent their family connection and bond. “Uzo and Keke found a way to make them be these fully formed characters, even though they share different parts and relatively smaller screen time compared to Buzz. Having them hit the ground running as far as appeal and a well roundedness was something that was really important to us.”
Said Palmer, of her onscreen animated grandmother, “I love that I get to be related to Uzo and I love her. She’s amazing. So I was so excited when I heard that – ‘Oh wow, this is the storyline as it continues to develop.’ I just wish we could have been working together [recording]. You know, animation is interesting that way, but I was always tuned in to what was happening.”
The admiration was mutual, with Aduba saying, “I am a huge fan of Keke’s. I absolutely love her. So I was like, ‘This is so great!’ She’s hilarious. And there’s just so much heart when you watch her in the film. She’s just phenomenal, with so much range. It was so great to also just see the two sides of that life come together, which I love.”
Evans of course has experience playing someone who finds himself in a future far from the people he knew, thanks to his beloved role as Captain America. Regarding the relationship Buzz has with the two Hawthorne women in Lightyear, the actor said, “I think that helps show the passage of time; the fact that he’s still speaking to someone that is kin to someone that meant so much to him, but the fact that his friend is no longer here. What’s left is this granddaughter. This echo of what he once knew only emphasizes more that this is a man out of time.”