When the filmmakers created the character of the legendary Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear for Pixar Animation Studios’ 1995 feature film Toy Story, they realised that every cinephile loves a good hero—someone to admire, someone to root for. Heroes overcome insurmountable obstacles to save the day. And the best heroes—the ones who live on long after their films hit the big screen—are, at heart, human. They have flaws and fears—they’re utterly relatable, even as they soar to greatness.
Toy Story placed Buzz Lightyear centre stage as the brand-new, highly sought-after action figure that gave vintage pull-string Sheriff Woody a run for his money as Andy’s favourite toy. 21 years later director Angus MacLane (co-director of Finding Dory) found himself asking: What movie inspired Andy to beg for a fancy toy with lasers, karate-chop action and aerodynamic space wings? “Lightyear is the movie that Andy, his friends and probably most of the rest of the world saw,” says MacLane. “I wanted to make something that felt true to those fun, big-budget popcorn films.”
A sci-fi action-adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear, Lightyear follows the legendary Space Ranger (voiced by Chris Evans) on an intergalactic adventure. “I did a lot of research, breaking down the nature of genre thrillers,” says MacLane, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley (who co-wrote Onward alongside director Dan Scanlon and writer Keith Bunin.
“I knew Buzz would have to face a big problem, and I liked the sci-fi element of time dilation,” says MacLane. “There’s a rich history of character-out-of-time heroics: Captain America, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, to name a few.
“They say you can’t live in the past, but what if you could?” continues MacLane. “We all wonder what it would be like to go back in time, but instead we’re jumping forward in time. That’s the truth I wanted to build for ‘Lightyear’—nostalgia for the past while rapidly jumping into the future.”
Buzz Lightyear gave filmmakers a rich opportunity for exploration
“Ever since we met the character, Buzz has had this inherent and interesting tendency to view the world in a unique way,” says producer Galyn Susman. “His version of reality is never quite the same as everybody else’s, and there’s something super entertaining about that. He’s an aspirational character. The world really needs more aspirational characters right now.”
The film kicks off with accomplished Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, his commander Alisha Hawthorne and a crew of more than 1,000 scientists and technicians heading home from their latest mission. Approximately 4.2 million light-years away from Earth, a sensor signals their proximity to an uncharted but potentially resource-rich planet. Buzz makes the call to reroute their exploration vessel (aka the Turnip) to T’Kani Prime—a swampy planet with aggressive vines and giant swarming bugs. Efforts for a quick exit go horribly awry, culminating in a crash that shatters their fuel cell, leaving Buzz, Alisha and their entire crew stranded on the less-than-welcoming planet.
“Buzz is the guy who’s been at the top of his game for a while,” says executive producer Andrew Stanton, who contributed to all four “Toy Story” films. “We’re witnessing in this movie his first fall from grace. He’s never experienced that before.”
Marooned on the decidedly hostile planet, the crew settles in for the long game. Says co-screenwriter Jason Headley, “Nobody’s going anywhere until the resident scientists can create a new ‘hyperspeed’ crystal that holds up to a test flight. It’ll be years of trial and error.”
Buzz blames himself. “Burdened with the guilt of having made a critical mistake, Buzz is consumed by the desire to rectify it,” says Susman. “Our story takes place in space— but it’s still something we all face at some point or another. We make bad decisions, but if we spend our lives regretting those bad decisions instead of investing in what’s in front of our eyes, is that really living?”
Adds MacLane, “Life is never what we plan for. It’s not about dwelling on the past and wishing things were different—that seems like a waste of time. While Buzz is obsessed with righting his wrong, Alisha decides that she’s going to do her best with where she is right now. She wants to make the most of her time regardless of what planet she’s on.”
Time. Among Buzz’s battles with guilt, technology, chemistry and surprisingly strong vines—it seems time is the most challenging. With each test flight he undertakes to gauge their latest ‘hyperspeed’ fuel concoction, he experiences time dilation. The initial four-minute test flight for Buzz takes four years on T’Kani Prime, and the phenomenon intensifies with each effort. Life is literally passing him by: Alisha and the crew members are living their lives—pursuing interests, building families, getting older—and Buzz virtually stays the same. The math is complex but Buzz sums it up in the film: “The faster I fly, the further into the future I travel. I get it.”
Filmmakers liken it to their own experience at Pixar. “Every time you make a film,” says MacLane, “at least four years go by. Then you come up for air and you realize the world has gone on without you.”
Decades—and friends—pass. Buzz, determined to “finish the mission” and get everyone back to Earth, continues to test fuel in a series of test flights as his crewmates age without him. But just when he’s about to crack the code, everything changes. After a series of impulsive decisions and the arrival of a mysterious alien ship that threatens the colony, Buzz reluctantly teams up with a group of ambitious recruits known as the Junior Zap Patrol. According to Headley, Buzz somehow over- and underestimates the trio’s potential.
“He starts out thinking, ‘This is perfect! I need an elite squad!’” says Headley. “He assumes they’re the A-Team. But pretty quickly—following a bungled battle with one of Zurg’s robots—Buzz realizes they’re the B-Team—if that. They aren’t trained, they don’t know anything, and he decides ‘they can’t help me. I don’t need them. I’ll do this on my own.’ But he has no idea the effect they’ll have on him.”
About The Filmmakers
ANGUS MACLANE (Director/Screenplay by/Story by) joined Pixar Animation Studios as an animator in 1997. He has since worked on a number of Pixar’s feature films including “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and the Academy Award®-winning films “The Incredibles,” “WALL•E” and “Toy Story 3.” For his work on “The Incredibles,” MacLane won an Annie Award from ASIFA-Hollywood for outstanding achievement in character animation. MacLane directed the short films “BURN•E” and “Small Fry.” He won an Annie Award for outstanding achievement in direction for his work on the television special “Toy Story OF TERROR!” and co-directed “Finding Dory.” MacLane grew up in Portland, Ore., and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Rhode Island School of Design. He is a huge LEGO fan and designed the LEGO Ideas WALL•E set released in 2015. MacLane resides in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife, their two children and two cats.
JASON HEADLEY (Screenplay by/Story By) has written two feature films for Pixar Animation Studios. He co-wrote the Academy Award®-nominated feature “Onward,” alongside director Dan Scanlon and writer Keith Bunin. Outside of his work at Pixar, Headley wrote and directed the SXSW Special Jury Prizewinning feature “A Bad Idea Gone Wrong.” His short films—including the viral videos “It’s Not About the Nail” and “F*ck That: An Honest Meditation”—have been featured at Banksy’s Dismaland, NBC’s TODAY Show, SundanceTV, the TED Conference, Vimeo Staff Picks, and more.
Headley is also a Cinereach Fellow as well as a former IFP/Gotham Labs Fellow and member of SFFILM FilmHouse. He’s also been commissioned by Heineken, Sony, and Chrysler to write, direct, and produce original short films.