It’s been 27 years since Pixar released the first Toy Story in 1995. Since then, the animation studio has told us stories about innovative bugs, family fish, a lonely geriatric man and his flying house, not-so-scary monsters, romantic robots, our inner emotions, and 13-year-old Chinese Canadians who turn into red pandas. Audiences everywhere have connected with each title emotionally while being wowed at the incredible visuals. So with Lightyear hitting theaters later in June, we will get to see the man that made the beloved toy.
Check out the latest trailer below:
Billed as the Sci-Fi epic that Andy watched in 1995, Lightyear sees Buzz exploring new galaxies for Star Command. However, when the evil Emperor Zurg threatens the universe’s safety, Buzz may be its only hope to save it. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director of Finding Dory) and produced by Galyn Susman (Toy Story 4), Lightyear explores the man behind the myth and gives new meaning to a person living out of time.
The Nerds of Color had a chance to attend a virtual presentation of Lightyear and take a look at over 30 minutes of the animated Sci-Fi epic filled with some familiar Toy Story quotes and a few nods to Aliens, Star Wars, and more. And though Lightyear may be a spinoff, it is presented as a Sci-Fi epic, which gives it the kind of distance it needs to separate itself from the Toy Story films.
Much of Toy Story‘s Buzz’s square-jawed heroic personality is derived from the film the toy is based on. But this Buzz (Chris Evans) is flesh and blood. He is the fearless space ranger who rises to the challenge and records all his missions like any dutiful captain. But, of course, that doesn’t mean anyone likes to listen to those logs, as his fellow space Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) points out. She’s the counterpoint to the rough-edged hero and one who isn’t afraid to ground him. The dynamics between the two are refreshing as they banter but stay on task. It also lays out the exposition necessary for the title character’s arc. Buzz isn’t the type of guy to have much of a relationship with anyone except those he trusts. Like Alicia, who he trained with while at Star Command Academy. And because he knows what it’s like, he firmly believes that rookies don’t help and over-complicate things. It’s probably the one regulation he despises as he investigates the habitability of a newly uncharted planet.
Of course, since Lightyear is a movie about everyone’s favorite space ranger, there will be a few nods to its Toy Story origins and a few references to our favorite sci-fi films. The film even opens with some exposition that seems to justify its existence. It tells us about the Buzz Lightyear toy that Andy got for his birthday in 1995, how that toy was from his favorite movie, and that this is the movie he watched. From there, we are introduced to some familiar Sci-Fi nods. The Turnip, the space ship acutely named by Buzz, is an exploration vessel, with a crew of 1,200, in deep space that’s lightyears from Earth on its way to an unknown destination. After it’s alerted to a planet, the Turnip awakens Buzz from his cyrosleep, which has echoes of an Alien film. He then makes a detour to investigate that planet.
And as Buzz does further exploration, we hear those iconic lines he first said when Andy unboxed him on his birthday. “Terrain seems a bit unstable,” and “No sign of intelligent life anywhere” may seem like something you’d hear in any other Sci-Fi film. But Evans’s cadence and how the character reacts to the situation reflect when we were first introduced to him, as a toy, in 1995. But instead of beds and other household items that felt lifeless, this is a planet filled with lush colors and tangibility. The way the ground bounces and the dust lifts as Buzz hops on it, or how the plant life’s different textures give the planet an alien feel. And the heaviness and attention to detail in the suits and the Turnip add the space-age vibes. It honestly feels like you can reach out and touch it.
In these opening minutes, we see a Buzz that we are familiar with, yet it is also one that will create a distance between itself and the Toy Story films. Designing Lightyear as a film itself is an ingenious way of doing that. While we first heard those iconic lines from the 1995 film are a wink and a nod, we now know where they originated. Not only that, but we get an idea that there is much more to the square-jawed hero than just “falling with style.”
So in its opening, Pixar shows us what a Sci-Fi epic could be like in their hands. Drawing its inspiration from films like Aliens and Star Wars and a few animes, the first 30 minutes revolves around building Buzz as a hero with a strong sense of duty but no grip on the reality of the conflict. His attempt to get off the planet may have failed, but Alicia reminds him that it’s their job to get everyone off this rock and bring them home. She may mock him for narrating or poke fun at him for being too much of a hero, but she is also Buzz’s best and only friend and one who isn’t afraid to knock him down a peg or two. He even outright asks her “you’re mocking me, aren’t you,” with a slight hint of animosity.
And the Pixar team took a lot of care into building the character work with as much diversity and dynamics as possible. Alicia is also a strong and fearless space ranger, but one with a more empathetic approach to things. And she happens to be a Black woman. Given that there’s very little of that representation in Sci-Fi space films, it’s beautiful to see someone like Hawthorne exist as a character who has to remind Buzz about the mission and life itself. Buzz sees what he’s missing through her as he goes on hyperspeed test flights and experiences time dilation. While the test flights are only a few minutes for Buzz, it’s been four years for everyone back at mission control. So while the first test flight fails, it is a mission that Buzz dedicates his life to complete. And he gets help from a robotic cat named Sox (Peter Sohn), who is programmed to give Buzz the emotional support he needs. Unfortunately, Buzz sees Sox more as a nuisance than a loyal companion and compares him to autopilot, which he sees as useless. But he asks him to come up with a solution to the fuel problem they are currently having as a way to get him out of his life, at least for the time being.
With every return home, Buzz and the audience see the passage of time rapidly passing by them. We miss every significant moment for everyone stranded on the planet, especially Alicia. First, she gets engaged and then married. Then she has a kid and grandkid. And it is during this test light failure montage we see Pixar restore the much talked about same-sex kiss. The living quarters, the ships, and the technology are also changing. Despite all of this, he’s happy for Alicia, who picks him up from every return, a little bit older and a little bit wiser. But these missions begin to take their emotional and physical toll on the mission control crew. Ultimately, it takes Buzz misses so much that he’s become the Rip Van Winkle of space. And though the crew respects him for that, Buzz is at a place in his life where he can never catch up with them or recover all of the lost time. And it’s until the final mission that he learns about what he’s truly lost. He discovers that everyone he’s ever known is gone on his return home. Yet, despite his losses, he remains steadfast in completing the mission. That is until he learns Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) has scrubbed it because they’ve decided to settle down on the bug-infested and foliage-sentient rock.
The Lightyear footage then makes a short jump to where the title space ranger meets the Junior Patrol, a ragtag group of eager cadets who haven’t achieved the title of rookie yet due to their inexperience. Led by Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alicia’s granddaughter, the Junior Patrol saves Buzz from one of Zurg’s drones through a series of trial and error. Izzy unknowingly fires training bullets, Darby (Dale Soules) is prohibited from handling firearms, and Mo (Taika Waititi) has difficulty loading a harpoon. And despite their inexperience, the team, Sox, and Buzz manage to defeat the drone, which motivates an angry Zurg to finish the job himself.
While this may be a Toy Story spinoff, Lightyear feels wholly different from anything else we’ve seen before. Much of that is achieved in the visuals, balancing recognizable shapes with real-world details. Visual Effects supervisor Jane Yen noted that MacLane “wanted a specific look that not only was more graphic and less hyper-realistic, but a stylization that felt exceptionally cohesive in every element of their world, both in the way it was animated and in the way it looked.” They avoided realistic characters in animation in a cartoony world or cartoony characters in a realistic world. Right when Buzz walks out of the Turnip, we recognize that chunk and bulkiness of the suit and that heroic chin. Even the color schemes and patterning are familiar with the toy action figure. But of course, with the technology improving since 1995, everything about the world and its set pieces has this tangibility. Not only that, but Lightyear looks like it could have been a film that existed in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
MacLane’s approach to the film’s visual styles speaks to the cinematic feel of Lightyear. In the opening sequence alone, We see Buzz and Alicia investigate the habitability of this unnamed planet, which then takes on a lift of its own when the sentient foliage begins to attack them and the Turnip. As the two race back to the ship, they defend themselves against vines by slicing away with their energy beams and shooting various bugs coming out of their hives in an action sequence that’s reminiscent of Starship Troopers. Even when Alicia rescues Buzz with that iconic shot, you can feel the tension from the drama and the sign of relief knowing that Buzz is safe.
Lightyear may look like another Toy Story spinoff on the surface, but take away the suit, we find a stoic yet vulnerable man who must come to terms with time rapidly passing by him. The film explores nostaliga and the dark side of it against the backdrop of a Sci-Fi epic that looks reminiscent of the ’70s and ’80s films of yesteryear. And based on everything I’ve seen so far, it feels a lot like those sci-fi classics I would watch on VHS. Popcorn in hand and rewinding to see my favorite action scenes while fast-forwarding the more scary parts.
Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.