Building Buzz's Origin Story: How 'Lightyear' Fits Into the 'Toy Story' Universe

In 'Lightyear,' Buzz has to be a serious action hero, or as director Angus MacLane puts it, 'more the Woody here.'

Danielle Turchiano


Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

For a long time, director Angus MacLane wondered about the Space Rangers program and Star Command that allowed Buzz Lightyear to become such an icon for young children like Andy within the world of Toy Story. Lightyear gave him his chance to tell that story.

Lightyear is Buzz's backstory film. In it, Buzz (now voiced by Chris Evans) works alongside Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) in the Space Rangers program, but when a mission goes awry, they end up marooned on a distant, and not entirely hospitable, planet. Buzz then dedicates himself to trying to get them off that planet. Years go by and society adapts to life there, but he is steadfast, and eventually he has to team up with Alisha's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) and her ragtag partners in a rookie program to complete the mission. Along the way, they of course encounter the evil Zurg (voiced by James Brolin), who has an army of robots on the planet, and learn about his own mission and motivations, too.

But Lightyear is not just an origin story for the real audience that has grown up on the Toy Story franchise: It was created to exist as a movie within the Toy Story universe, too — one that was released in the 1980s and that spawned its own franchise and merchandise line, which is how and why Andy received a Buzz action figure for his birthday in the original Toy Story film. 

"To nerd out a little bit, '95 is when he got the toy, but technically the movie was from '86, so the toy is based on a cartoon show that was made after the feature was a hit. They were like, 'We should make a cartoon show; we'll jettison all the characters except for Buzz and Zurg,' that kind of thing," MacLane tells Metacritic.

That is, in part, why there are new actors voicing already beloved characters.

"Because Buzz was able to be a side character and in other films, he could be goofier; he could be well-meaning idiot," MacLane continues. "We needed this to be a clean break and [Buzz to] be more of a serious action hero. He's more the Woody here. Now he's in a spot where it's, who's his Buzz? And what we figured out was it's a number of characters in the film because it's not a straight buddy film. Sox fills that void; certainly Alicia presses buttons; Izzy and Mo and Darby fill that spot. But that was really the biggest change because when we went back to look at Toy Story like, 'Yeah, we've got to figure out what's Buzz Lightyear like?'"

And the answer was that from a character perspective he had to be a bit more nuanced than the toy. From a visual standpoint, they had to include the Space Ranger suit Buzz has been immortalized in in toy form, but they also created additional versions of the suit for him to wear in other parts of his job.

"The suit is so iconic and recognizable. And the interesting thing is that when you try to put a reasonably proportioned human body inside a suit like that, it's very difficult to get them to move. We were really not nice to our animators. Everything about how they had to move, it's this constant issue of colliding," producer Galyn Susman tells Metacritic

Interestingly, MacLane and Susman imagine that in Andy's world, Lightyear started as a live-action film before becoming that cartoon series that spawned the toy line. And by having their names in the credits of the film, they effectively made them canon characters in the universe, too.

Both have a long history with the studio, with Susman working on everything from Ratatouille to several Toy Story shorts and Toy Story 4, and MacLane starting as an animator on Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 (among other Pixar films) and before going on to direct two shorter form projects in the franchise: Toy Story Toons: Small Fry and Toy Story of Terror.

With such storied histories with both the studio and the franchise, they know a lot about the evolution of animation styles and the expectation of the audience when watching a modern animated film. Even though in the universe of Toy Story, Lightyear would have been produced and released decades before audiences are watching it in theaters in 2022, "we still wanted to use all the tools at our disposal to make an awesome sci-fi epic," Susman says. It's just "the aesthetic of a movie that's made with practical models versus a movie that's made with CG."

Inspirations came from classic films ranging from Star Wars to Aliens.

"Aesthetically, we wanted to make sure everything there were no buttons in space — no Minority Report buttons. Everything had a [real] button or needed a switch," MacLane says. It was about "trying to make the world as chunky and as physical as possible so that the world felt tactile because it's an animated film and you have to spend so much time making the world believable so that you're worried about the character safety. 

"So many animated films are constantly reminding you that it's not real, and their source of entertainment is by being very flashy or loud in the movement, and that's not something that was appealing to me for this film because we need to make a world where Buzz is concerned for his safety and there are real stakes if you have explosions," he continues.