Buzz Lightyear has come a long way since Pixar introduced him first as a space ranger action figure in Toy Story. Voiced by Tim Allen, the character was the believable hero, but also served as comic relief throughout the films, sequels, shorts, and TV specials. However, Lightyear is different. Instead of telling another chapter of the long-running Toy Story film franchise, director Angus MacLane wanted fans to see the Buzz (Chris Evans) with a new perspective, one that shows nuances to his heroism, ambition, humor, bravery, and maturity.
The Nerds of Color had the chance to join their fellow journalists for the Lightyear virtual press conference where they got to talk to Evans, Keke Palmer, Taikia Waititi, Dale Soules, and Peter Sohn about voicing their respective characters and what it meant to be a part of a film that is a part of a great animation legacy.
Evans was excited at the chance to “explore a character that we all know so well in a slightly more nuanced interpretation.” For so long, fans have recognized Buzz as one of Andy’s favorite toys who often leaps into action whenever someone is in danger, but still knows his limitations because he’s a toy. “As a toy, there are certain ways that they can move to the world without the weight that we may carry,” he said. “A toy knows its purpose. It doesn’t have to worry about disease or that the data impacts the choices that we make as people are a little bit more consequential. And it’s, it’s fun to put Buzz against that backdrop.”
And making these stories as relatable as possible brings a degree of humanity to these characters no matter if they are monsters, aliens, or have fantastical experiences like turning into giant red pandas. But for Lightyear, Palmer’s Izzy Hawthorne is a Black junior space ranger of the Zap Patrol who was born on a distant planet in a far off galaxy. And yet, her mere presence is an inspiration and her motivation is one we connect with.
“She wants to make her family proud. And that’s something that I think we all can relate to,” Palmer said. “The fact that she’s not afraid to pivot I really admired that about her and that character. And I feel like she displays so many great leadership qualities that sometimes will overshadow you know, she knows how to push her friends forward. And you know, she knows how to see something in somebody so they can carry out their duty. She empowers others. And it just I love the character.”
Pixar’s character work and prioritization of storytelling is something that Taika Waititi respects as a filmmaker. “I think it’s, especially with Pixar actually, the relentless pursuit of a perfect story. And you can see that time and time again with their movies,” he said. “I always go back to their movies, not only just not for entertainment or to feel something emotional, but I go back to study how they structure their films and the the economy of storytelling. The way that they write their scripts, they annoyingly they just get it right every time. So, I’m not afraid to rip off those you know, The practices that they use because it’s inspiring to see as a filmmaker to see these guys make these make these perfect films all the time.”
In fact, Waititi connected with Lightyear‘s themes from learning from your mistakes and taking responsibility to being a hero to someone. “I’ve made mistakes in my time. That theme definitely resonates with me. And especially the idea of, you know, taking responsibility, wanting to be the hero and wanting to be some kind of hero to someone,” he said. But I think the theme that really resonates the most with me is this idea of seeking something that’s out there, something in the future, something that’s not tangible and real, like what’s around you in the here and now. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. I mean, definitely out in outer space, there’s no grass at all.”
And Peter Sohn knows a thing or to about voicing characters and directing Pixar features having played Remy in Ratatouille and directed The Good Dinosaur — he’s also the director of Elemental. So trying to strike a balance between robot and supportive lovable and emotional heroic cat wasn’t as difficult since he was already working with a great director who can nerd out on films like Wrath of Khan. “That was all Angus, and the team. They’re really fun to work with it’s for a long time. It was really easy to go from, like, you know, a militant sort of like, ‘Yes, captain,’ I’ve got, ‘Lightspeed,’ and then go into a friendly, you know, buddy [tone],” he said. “It’s so funny, you know, when we were talking about Sox, like he’s a cat, but like, he’s so loyal, like a dog, and I’m a dog guy. And so I can totally jump into the idea of like, whatever you want Buzz, like, ‘I’ll bring you your snacks. I’ll bring your your newspapers.’ And so it was really it was really fun in the room. But that was really made with Angus.”
While Lightyear’s story features a pretty straightforward hero’s journey, there are a few plot twists that fans can expect to see that will change the way we see the Buzz Lightyear mythology. Though we can’t delve into spoilers, some of these secrets were even kept from the cast like James Brolin, who voices Zurg. “I walked in there cold the night before I got a sheet with some of the dialogue. None of it quite made sense. It was one of five sessions I thought I’ll knock this out in the half hour. Four hours later of sweat with each session with Angus saying try it like this (growls) and working with me with each day I learned more,” he said. “Of course, out of actors common sense, whatever we have, about what the character was about, and I had to piece it together. I haven’t seen a polished film yet. And I’ll see it tomorrow night to see what the hell my character was all about. I have no idea.”
Lightyear is also one of the first of the Toy Story spinoffs to feature a new talent voicing a legacy character. That’s a tall order for anyone, especially Evans. Though the actor is known fo delivering a few marvelous signature catchphrases himself, saying something like “to infinity and beyond” carries a different kind of weight. “Obviously ‘To infinity and Beyond’ is something I knew well before ‘Avengers Assemble.’ It was dear to me in much earlier chapters of my life but but you know, as proud as I am to play this role and as honored as I am to to be a part of this universe now, that line belongs to someone else,” he said. “It almost kind of felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes or something, you know, so, so you do your best to honor it and put your own spin on it. But let’s be honest, that’s that’s Tim Allen’s line.”
Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.