The new Pixar movie Lightyear is a spin-off of the Toy Story franchise. If you wanted to stay sane you could just leave it at that. But, if you want to figure out what kind of spinoff Lightyear is, relative to Toy Story, madness may ensue. Is this a sequel to Toy Story? A reboot? A prequel? Or it might be the strangest type of movie of all time, an unholy chimera with a movie category we had to invent: A double Pixar movie, otherwise known as a Pixar-Pixar. What’s that, you ask? Well, it’s a Pixar movie that happens inside of a Pixar movie watched by Pixar characters, but somehow, also, watched by us. Let’s get into it. Only mild spoilers ahead for Lightyear.
In the fiction of Toy Story, Lightyear is almost a decade older than Pixar’s first feature-length film. If you’re confused about how and where, exactly, Lightyear is connected to the Toy Story franchise, you’re not alone. Even Chris Evans, who voices Buzz (originally voiced by Tim Allen) got it wrong at first. But, the good news is that there is a “simple” explanation, and the better news is that you can watch Lightyear with zero knowledge of the Toy Story movies and it works just fine as a standalone film. Perhaps even better.
Lightyear is about Buzz Lightyear, a dashing space ranger. In the Toy Story movies, Buzz Lightyear is a toy that a kid named Andy got in 1995. However, as the opening text explains in Lightyear, the new movie is supposed to be the film that Andy saw and loved so much that it prompted him to get a cool new toy based on the movie. So, in the story of Toy Story, Lightyear was released in theaters (in a Pixar world?) sometime before 1995 (on the Pixar calendar) and created a huge media franchise. This means Lightyear is a movie made for Pixar people in a Pixar universe, that we are allowed to see, somehow.
Again, this is really all you need to know. Lightyear purports to be the movie that inspired the Buzz Lightyear toy that Andy had in Toy Story, and Andy had seen this movie.
There was, however, some early confusion in the cast and crew’s initial attempts to explain what Lightyear was. In a much-mocked tweet shortly after the film’s announcement, Chris Evans tried and failed to set the record straight.
“And just to be clear, this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on,” Evans wrote.
It’s not exactly accurate because Lightyear isn’t quite an origin story, and within the meta-fiction of the movie, Buzz Lightyear was never a real human that the toy was based on, but a movie character. But, can anyone really blame him? Even though we know the real answer, isn’t Evan’s answer slightly more fun for a child? At this point, Pixar has rendered Buzz Lightyear doubly fake. He’s a movie character, and toy based on a movie character, meaning he’s twice the non-person. Or something.
That’s it, though, right? We figured it out, eventually: Lightyear is the movie that the toy Buzz Lightyear originated from, and Andy loved this movie and got the toy in 1995. Perfect.
A live-action Lightyear?
But wait. It gets weirder. Why would a Pixar movie released in the Pixar universe look like this? Maybe it doesn’t? Maybe this movie is actually a “live-action” movie?
If this is fiction within the Pixar world, why is Lightyear an animated movie? Animation technology was nowhere near this good back when the film was supposed to have come out in order for Andy to have seen it in 1995. In a press conference ahead of the film’s release, director Angus MacLane said that he always envisioned that Lightyear would have been a live-action movie, even though the version that we’re seeing in the real world is animated. An animated movie made for Pixar people would, of course, look totally different. The people in Lightyear look like “normal” Pixar people, so it’s a live-action movie within the Pixar context.
The meta implications of this go even further if you’ll let them. At that same press conference, MacLane recalled a startling revelation he and his fellow filmmakers had when somebody asked who the filmmakers were who made Lightyear were within the movie’s fiction.
“We realized we are the filmmakers because the credits have our names on it,” he said. “I think there’s an in-universe version of each of us [and] that we are now Disney characters.” Okay...so time travel and some sort of version of Pixar-Tron, where people get turned into Pixar characters and live on the Pixar grid?
MacLane also explained that, in the retconned fiction of Toy Story, the reason why Andy did not have a toy version of Sox — a robot cat character who is Lightyear’s clear breakout star in the real world — was because Sox toys would have been too expensive and in-demand for Andy’s mom to have gotten her hands on them. (In our universe Sox toys are pretty affordable.)
In another interview, MacLane also explained that, in his understanding of the movie’s fiction, it was actually an ‘80s sci-fi movie, not a ‘90s one. Just because Andy got his Buzz Lightyear toy in 1995 doesn’t mean that’s when the movie came out. So Buzz Lightyear — within the fiction of Toy Story — is like Star Wars being popular in the ‘90s even though it came out in the ‘80s.
“I always envisioned that it was made in 1986, and it was in 1995 that Andy got the toy after having seen the film a lot on VHS and there being an offshoot TV cartoon,” MacLane told SYFY WIRE. “Because a lot of times sci-fi movies didn’t have a merchandising partner. So, for example, there were no Rambo toys for First Blood or First Blood Part II, but there were for the Rambo TV cartoon. When Andy found out they were going to make a Lightyear cartoon he was stoked, and that’s where he got the toy, from that. That’s what the stylistic difference is.”
So, this adds one additional wrinkle to our understanding of what Lightyear is. Let’s try to put it all together with the best we can.
- In the fiction of Toy Story, Lightyear was a live-action ‘80s sci-fi movie that inspired a spin-off cartoon show that in turn had a merchandising line.
- A boy named Andy saw this movie in the mid-’90s, loved it, and eventually bought a toy version of the title character, Buzz Lightyear. Phew!
It’s understandable that people are hung up and confused by what Lightyear is. It’s weird!
Thankfully, enjoying Lightyear on its own merits requires none of this extra-curricular or metatextual knowledge. In other words, please don’t try to read this article to your 6-year-old, or quote from the film’s director while talking about the movie with anyone but other parents who have already asked this question. It’s just a fun sci-fi story about a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear, okay? It’s a fun movie and your kids don’t need to know any of the reasons why it exists. Just pretend they’re like Andy. Or maybe, pretend like you’re Andy.
Lightyear is out in theaters now.