“Lightyear” acts as an origin story for Buzz Lightyear, the inspiration behind the “Toy Story” space ranger, and taps into that classic film series’ supporting cast by bringing in Buzz’s chief foe, the evil emperor Zurg.
But there’s a huge twist in the new film (in theaters now), when Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) sees the true face of the enemy underneath Zurg’s helmet: Himself.
After Buzz and a spaceship full of cosmic travelers is marooned on an alien world 4.2 million light years from Earth, our hero goes to extreme lengths to craft a hyper-speed crystal to return home, and after a successful test flight – following many, many failures – he returns to their space colony to learn that, while he’s been away, it’s been invaded by Zurg and his robot army.
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Buzz trains a motley crew of rookie space rangers for a mission to defeat Zurg (Josh Brolin), while overcoming his need to save the day by himself. And when he finally confronts the villain, Zurg reveals himself to be an older Buzz who didn’t learn his lesson about letting others help out, too. Instead of embracing others, this Buzz time-traveled far into the future, put together a horde of mechanical soldiers and traveled back to use young Buzz’s hyper-speed crystal to fix everything.
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In the “Toy Story” films, Zurg was inspired by Darth Vader, and “Lightyear” director Angus MacLane reveals that he tried out the baddie as Buzz’s dad, just like Luke and Anakin Skywalker in the “Star Wars” saga. But “it didn’t work, interestingly.” (There’s a scene in 1999’s “Toy Story 2” in which Zurg tells Buzz he’s his father in a spoof of the famous moment from “The Empire Strikes Back.”)
One reason why Daddy Zurg didn’t fly was “there’s too much stuff going on” in “Lightyear,” MacLane says. “We were setting up all of this backstory just so we could get to the dad. And when he is like, ‘I’m your dad,’ you’re like, ‘Yeah, I know, you just spent an hour talking about it.’ There’s no surprise in that. We banged our head against that.”
Ultimately, the dynamic between Buzz and Zurg was inspired more by Indiana Jones and his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” archaeological foil René Belloq. MacLane paraphrases Belloq’s quote comparing the two: “We are not very different, you and I, Dr. Jones. It would only take the slightest twist to make you the same.”
“Lightyear” producer Galyn Susman says the most interesting bad guys are “just a few bad choices away from not being the villain. And when you look at the choices that they’re confronted by, you could say, ‘Oh, I could see making that choice.’ Those are the ones that make you think.”
With Buzz, there’s a “meta narrative” in “Lightyear” of a hero who thinks he has all of the solutions, although that mindset “takes him down a road of isolation that I think unfortunately is a little too common,” MacLane says. And his older antagonistic self is a manifestation of the “toxic heroism” the good version has to work past with his not-ready-for-prime-time cadets.
“The message of the movie is that (Buzz) needs to be less of a messiah character and a little bit more of a team player,” the director adds. “That reflects the realities of what we know in film production: You have to work with the team. It’s not any one person. You’re not going to have all the answers. Sometimes you need to ask for help.”