Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Pixar’s TOY STORY franchise has stood the test of time. With heap loads of heart and humor, well-drawn (literally!) characters and voice actors delivering top shelf work, the cinematic series has inspired creative adventures on both the corporate and consumer level, from boardrooms to playgrounds. Expanding the universe has happened previously in the shorts like HAWAIIAN VACATION, TOY STORY THAT TIME FORGOT and PARTYSAURUS REX and also with the Television Animation series BUZZ LIGHTYEAR OF STAR COMMAND. However, none of it compares to Disney-Pixar’s upcoming standalone spin-off, LIGHTYEAR.
Director Angus MacLane, who previously directed the Buzz-centered short SMALL FRY, expands on the man and the mythos that is Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear. Looking unlike anything the studio’s done before visually posed a fun challenge for the filmmaker as he and his crew make old school tech look modern, elegantly designed and awe-inducing. At the film’s recent press day, we got a glimpse of what to expect from this striking feature.
The Story Beginnings
The clever conceit of LIGHTYEAR is that it’s the film that Andy saw in 1995 that inspired his love of Buzz Lightyear – a toy that would redefine playtime for the young boy. Envisioned by MacLane as “Andy’s STAR WARS,” he says it’s, “a celebration of the movies and sci-fi epics in general, but it’s also inspired by the dark side of nostalgia and the dangers of living in the past.”
He elucidates, “The challenge for this film was how do you take the character that’s reverent to Buzz before he recognized he was a toy – which is not that much of that movie – and make him a main character? We tried to maintain the spirit of that internal character by making him [a] fairly square, duty-focused character who is very much committed to the job and doesn’t have a great sense of humor.”
The story experienced a few changes in the five and a half years it took to make this film. However, it didn’t divert too much from being what we see in its final incarnation: a story of a man whose journey takes him from selfish to selfless. Buzz, his colleagues and many passengers traveling aboard a massive spacecraft on an intergalactic colonization mission find themselves stranded on a remote, inhospitable planet in the far off reaches of the galaxy for years on end thanks to a gross misjudgment made by the arrogant astronaut.
MacLane says, “The root of the movie and what it became is pretty much exactly what we set out to do.” Producer Galyn Susman adds, “We wanted a fight in zero G. Right? We didn’t want to make this movie without having a fight in zero G.” MacLane jumps in, “Once it was a heist in zero G. It did turn into a fight in zero G. That is the process. But it wasn’t, I would say it was, as far as the amount of revisions, it was a little bit less than normal on this one.”
As for any inspired homages in LIGHTYEAR, MacLane says, “There are very few specific things. There are some completely legally cleared, very obvious referential stuff to my favorite movie, ALIENS. There’s a bunch of that in the movie that will be for the deep nerds. [But] in general, I always had this saying, like, ‘I don’t want to remind the audience of a better movie. And so, when you make the film, and if you have a reference, or you have some sort of thing that reminds people, it can pull them out of the movie. My goal was not parody, or satire, but rather the feeling of that.”
Since this is a different version of the beloved, headstrong character (not a toy, but an actor playing a part in a real movie), Susman went to Chris Evans. “He needed to have a nice, rich sound, able to be both dramatic and comedic, and most importantly, he needed to be heroic without coming off as arrogant or dense. That’s a tall order.” Rounding out Buzz’s team is Mission commander Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), who’s the emotional anchor for act one as Buzz’s best friend, and General Cal Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Later, our hero joins a ragtag crew, comprised of inexperienced explorers Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), Darby Steel (Dale Soules) and their leader Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alicia’s spirited, gumption-filled granddaughter.
Finely tuned ears will instantly recognize the voice of Buzz’s onboard computer IVAN, which stands for Internal Voice Activated Navigator, is characters Mary McDonald-Lewis, most well-known for voicing vehicles OnStar computer system. However, the film’s adorable scene stealer is Sox, Buzz’s companion robot cat voiced by Pixar director Peter Sohn. MacLane shares, “I wanted a robot character. He has been designed and-with loads of features. He’s got a welding laser, long-range scanners, holo-projectors and short-range sensors. He’s got a name tag. He’s got an empathy chip. He’s got quadruped locomotion, magnet feet and a self-writing mechanism. He’s got a tail – [and] a data port in the tail. He’s got the ability to speak. He’s got a ton of features. This isn’t even half of them.”
Zurg, Buzz’s primary antagonist, is voiced by Josh Brolin. Sets Art Director Greg Peltz says, “Adapting Zurg for our film was a tall order. The original design from TOY STORY 2 is iconic, and we wanted to draw from that source material as much as possible. But at the same time, our movie has a look that is more mature and detailed than the original toy version of the character. So we needed our Zurg to fit within that new aesthetic that we’ve developed for a sci-fi world. But above all, Zurg, he needs to be a threat. His design had to be intimidating so that he could carry the menace and the presence that our story demanded. So taking all of those goals together, reimagining the character as a giant robot was sort of a natural fit for the character and the world that he occupies.”
Helping to create a big, “bombastic” sonic scale and scope for the picture, the creatives brought on Michael Giacchino, a composer well-versed in genre scores (everything from STAR TREK to ROGUE ONE).
MacLane explains, “I wanted the design of the world to be cinematic and I wanted it to be chunky. I envisioned this graphic image that would utilize high-contrast atmosphere inspired by the look of the 1970s film.” To achieve the cinematic look, they used, “different lenses and lighting techniques to build a believable, tangible world, and then we throw it away, using shadows and atmosphere. We have bold lighting, emphasizing the graphic and letting the detail fall away, drawing the viewer into a rich world of a tangible alien landscape.” He continues, “The other quality I wanted [was] there to be a thickness to things. The original Buzz has a lot of chunk inspired by healthy dose of NASA and Japanese anime. But we didn’t want this new Buzz to look like a toy. I wanted the technology in the world to be a pushbutton world of inefficiency – a celebration of the early 1970s and 1980s vision of the future. We tried a variety of shapes and textures to explore the design possibilities of this neo-retro future, and these early exploration sketches inspired us to settle on a clear design ethos. Rugged military aerospace design combined with the 1980s consumer electronics aesthetic. This design language informed everything in the film, from vehicles to spaceships and the sets.”
Peltz shares that Buzz’s XL-1 spaceship, “takes all these styling cues from ‘70s aerospace design. We really wanted the look of our models to be such that you’d want to reach out and touch them and start playing with all the buttons and switches. In addition to looking cool, this stuff also serves a story purpose. Real cockpits have all sorts of details that shake and rattle, lights that blink, buzzers that scream while the whole vehicle shakes like crazy. Basically, space launches are a violent, chaotic event, and we wanted the designs of our ships to highlight that sense of danger so that audiences can experience that excitement for themselves while they’re watching.”
LIGHTYEAR open exclusively in theatres on June 17th.