Pixar’s Lightyear represents the company’s first attempt at a theatrical spinoff, and it’s a few levels deep into its own lore, which has some people scratching their heads. According to IMDB, Lightyear is based on the “real life” inspiration for the Buzz Lightyear character, but the director recently came out and said it might have all spawned from this in-universe movie. Disney may want the audience to interpret it for themselves.
The seemingly simple idea is actually quite a massive narrative blueprint for an entire alternate reality from which the world of Toy Story is spawned. The series of popular films features a number of obscure and benchmark toy line classics like Mr. Potato head, Etch-a-Sketch, and Barbie, as well as original toys whose mythologies play into the narrative. While the movies often include a little backstory for their original toy brands, Toy Story That Time Forgot, a 2014 Disney premiere special and direct-to-video movie, leaned heaviest into an invented Toy Line’s narrative universe, which functioned as the main story device. 2013’s Toy Story of Terrorthe first of the two specials, also experimented with toy brands, grumpy toy collectors, and in-world advertising.
Buzz Lightyear was subject to a direct-to-video spinoff called Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Beginsreleased in 2000, which led to a television series. The 2-D animated series seemed to squeeze the towel dry of what is essentially the intellectual property behind a prop/character to service a sentient toy coming to terms with an existential crisis. Buzz, until now, was a self-aware character and a piece of merchandise marketed to children. It’s this show that Andy and his friends are likely watching on television while Woody might lie there on the floor, staring blankly at the screen, filled with jealousy and anger. The mean-spirited rivalry between Woody and Buzz in the original 1995 film is particularly vicious, featuring hateful language you probably wouldn’t see in the modern Toy Story mark. It also has a wonderful creepy quality that shows up occasionally in the movies and specials, which will likely have no shortage of content in the coming years. Apparently, there’s much more to Buzz and likely the entire Toy Story cinematic universe. With its expanding mythology and lore, it surely inspires a just-as-well-conceived film about Woody.
The ‘Real’ Inspiration
Lightyear now proposes Buzz was, in fact, based on a man who performed some great space fairing deed for mankind. The movie will fill out a very obscure in-universe adaptation that has never been referenced before in the Toy Story franchise. Audiences were informed of Buzz Lightyear’s origin in Toy Story 2, where we learned about the evil forces of Emperor Zurg, a cliche kind of blend of Darth Vader and Ming from Flash Gordon. Adding on to the bizarre nature of this upcoming spinoff, Zurg is apparently also present in this world, which means Toy Story‘s reality is far more literal and imaginative than one may have initially assumed, complete with talking cat cyborgs.
When rewatching the original Toy Story, one of the first things that stand out is the quality of the animation. It was made in 1995 when these kinds of movies were just taking flight, so it’s not as polished as modern tech allows. This is ironic when looking at the stellar animation of Lightyear, which goes even more realistic with its look and characters. Could this signal the arrival of more experimentation with Disney’s stable of characters and brands?
If successful, this may open a can of worms that treads into bizarro territory for their intellectual properties — introducing a new kind of tonal lens to view Disney properties does inspire a lot of imagination and infinite possibilities. What was the ironically humble inspiration for Fantasia? What was the far more quaint “real world” tale that inspired The Little Mermaid? What is Jack Sparrow as a true Bugs Bunny-like cartoon character? What does the slightly more realistic and adult tale of Moana look like? The possibilities are endless. Disney hauling in a kind of tonal flavor box of crayons could mean wildly different reinterpretations of their tent pole characters and franchises for years to come.
Experiment to Continue
The bold creative move aligns with some of the cultural experimentation we see online. Unlikely fan films, genre-swapping trailer edits, and even mashups may be having a more permanent effect on pop culture than we currently realize. While Lightyear is a subtle shift into a different tonal realm, it’s possible more drastic cinematic experimentation may follow. As more and more social media apps and video games are developed with carefully calculated strategies to hijack people’s interests and loyalty, eyeballs are shifting away from the traditional realm of narrative content.
As a result, we can expect more strange and outrageous gimmicks from Hollywood that try to compete for consumers’ attention. Friday the 13th Part 13 may turn some heads, but Jason vs. Killer Klowns From Outer Space would likely check more shareability boxes. The internet has proven the appetite people have for coloring outside the lines is far greater than some market research firms may have anticipated.
As things progress down this exciting yet strange cinematic reality, perhaps we will continue to see movies evolve in a way that’s typically been reserved for the realm of comic books. The tenacious print media canvas that always seems to be on the verge of extinction can potentially serve as litmus for things to come. Constant reinterpretation, bizarre hybrids, and strange crossovers will likely populate the future of cinema as competing for consumers’ attention become more challenging.
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