'Lightyear' banned in 14 countries: Canadian Disney, Pixar animator talks about character that sparked a protest

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With Disney’s Pixar animated film Lightyear being banned in 14 countries in Asia and the Middle East, starring Chris Evans voicing Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear, a Canadian animator who worked on the character Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), at the centre of the ban for her same-sex marriage in the movie, is highlighting the joy of bringing that character to the screen.

"I know that for me, growing up and watching a lot of action movies back when I was a kid, there were a few movies where I would be like ‘Oh my gosh there is a woman character and it's so cool that this character looks powerful, and they own their own body and they can do things that are fantastic,’” animator Emilie Goulet, from Quebec, told Yahoo Canada.

“I wanted to make sure that this movie also reflected that… I know that I put a lot of my heart into animating this character and wanting this character to feel authentic, and to feel like an inspiring character, someone to look up to.”

Speaking to reporters in advance of the film’s premiere, director Angus MacLane and producer Galyn Susman stressed that being able to show Alisha’s marriage, and even a kiss between the happy couple, was important.

It was very important, that whole relationship is about showing Buzz what he doesn't have, and we really just wanted to show a loving, meaningful relationship, and having a kiss as part of that, and we were really, really happy that we could do that.Galyn Susman, Producer of 'Lightyear'

“Certainly representation was something we were excited about, but more than anything, it's a reflection of the reality of the world that we live in,” MacLane added.

“Science fiction was always my entree into a more diverse society. Starting with Star Trek, at the time, was very diverse for a movie, for a show of its era, and so it's in that spirit that we take from Star Trek, of trying to find the most diversity we can in our cast.”

TO INFINITY -- Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is an all-new, original feature film that presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans)—the hero who inspired the toy—introducing the legendary Space Ranger and his dutiful robot companion, Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. (Disney/Pixar)
TO INFINITY -- Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is an all-new, original feature film that presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans)—the hero who inspired the toy—introducing the legendary Space Ranger and his dutiful robot companion, Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. (Disney/Pixar)

What is ‘Lightyear’ about?

Lightyear meshes the animation medium with the sci-fi world in the origin story of Buzz Lightyear. Lightyear is the film that Andy watched that made him want the Buzz action figure, starting us on the path to the Toy Story films we’ve seen.

Space Ranger Buzz, his commander, Alisha, and scientists and technicians, are heading home from a mission 4.2 million light-years away from Earth, but Buzz’s decision to reroute the journey doesn’t go as well as he hoped, leaving the entire colony stranded on the swampy planet of T’Kani Prime.

Buzz then makes it his mission to rectify his mistake, taking off on numerous test flights with updated hyperspeed fuel to try to get the crew back to Earth. But with every test, as Buzz says in the movie, “the faster I fly, the further into the future I travel.” This means that he returns to the crew the same Buzz that left, but everyone is older and is further ahead in their lives.

MAKING SPACE – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aduba)—his long-time commander, fellow Space Ranger and trusted friend—are marooned on a hostile planet. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. (Disney/Pixar)
MAKING SPACE – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aduba)—his long-time commander, fellow Space Ranger and trusted friend—are marooned on a hostile planet. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. (Disney/Pixar)

That means Buzz returns to an older Alisha, who gets married, has a child and continues to age with every test trip.

In one last attempt to “finish the mission,” Buzz ends up on an alien planet and has to team up with a group of amateur, aspiring Space Rangers to save the colony, including Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter, all while Buzz's cat companion Sox (Peter Sohn) is by his side.

“When Toy Story came out, it kind of kicked the doors down in terms of a new approach to the medium, so I was thrilled and excited to know that there was more to come,” Chris Evans told reporters. “I loved all the characters in Toy Story deeply.”

“The Buzz that we all know is obviously a toy and as a toy, there are certain ways that they can move through the world without the weight that we may carry. A toy knows its purpose, a toy, it doesn’t have to worry about disease… The impacts of the choices that we make as people are a little bit more consequential and it’s fun to put Buzz against that backdrop.”

TEAMING UP – Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is a sci-fi action adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), the hero who inspired the toy. The all-new story follows the legendary Space Ranger on an intergalactic adventure alongside a group of ambitious recruits (voices of Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and Dale Soules), and their robot companion Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). Also joining the cast are Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), “Lightyear” releases June 17, 2022. (Disney/Pixar)
TEAMING UP – Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is a sci-fi action adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), the hero who inspired the toy. The all-new story follows the legendary Space Ranger on an intergalactic adventure alongside a group of ambitious recruits (voices of Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and Dale Soules), and their robot companion Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). Also joining the cast are Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), “Lightyear” releases June 17, 2022. (Disney/Pixar)

'It needed to feel real and grounded'

It’s that concept of adding more human elements to the toy we know that is a core element of Lightyear and makes it a particularly spectacular animated movie to watch.

“The challenge was that it needed to feel real and grounded, and have weight and have balance,” Emilie Goulet explained. “Buzz and all the characters…they're on a planet and they're walking…and they're fighting elements, and all that stuff has to feel very real.”

“It's challenging because nothing comes for free on the computer, you always have to work with it to not have it feel like it's weightless and it's just made out of magic. Adding that stuff, it's kind of counterintuitive to the computer so that was the challenge… It needs to feel realistic but not real to the point where it feels like a live action movie, but it needs to feel like it can work in physical space.”

Canadian Pixar animators Donald Chan, Emilie Goulet and Rob Gennings.
Canadian Pixar animators Donald Chan, Emilie Goulet and Rob Gennings.

Canadian talent on display in 'Lightyear' and beyond

Canadians, in particular, should be proud of Lightyear with a number of home-grown talents among the team that created this animated sci-fi adventure, including Emilie Goulet and fellow animators Donald Chan and Rob Gennings.

Gennings, from Toronto, admits that there is some added pressure to work on a new movie with a character people have watched, and loved, since 1995.

“Here we are taking him into this new direction where it's not the toy, it's the man that’s in the film that inspired the toy,” he said. “There's this kind of responsibility of knowing what is true to the original Buzz Lightyear from [Toy Story], versus how we are defining him as his own character moving forward.”

What’s particularly interesting about Lightyear, extending from other Pixar films, is the way that it exemplifies how animated entertainment, as a medium, can be used to tell dynamic, emotional stories, as animator Chan, from Markham, Ont., told Yahoo Canada.

“We're able to tell emotional stories but also have it be grounded,” he said. “I think of all the Pixar shorts that have been done and it just gets to me every single time, in the heart, there's so much heart and feeling and it comes from a really real place.”

“I think the special part is Pixar, we’re so good at telling the story and finding the heart.”

Gennings added that what he really likes about animation is that it "opens you up to being able to do just about anything.”

“For this film I had to shoot a lot of reference footage of myself,...but there were a lot of times where I couldn't shoot reference footage because in an action sequence,...if I'm trying to do this move, I'm going to break my arm or something,” he explained. “So animation allows you to do those things, you can have Buzz doing some crazy fall and he's not going to break.”

“Whatever pushes the story and engages the audience to the highest degree, you can do that in animation, I think, easier than you could in live action.”

As these talented Canadians continue their careers in animation, currently at Pixar, they also hope to expand the kinds of stories being told through this medium.

“I think more immigrant stories would be really cool because I just think that's something that the world is starting to appreciate,...it's out there, more so,” Chan said. “It would be really cool to see that in animation as well, to see what life was like, an immigrant coming from a different country, somewhere new."

"I think that's what's so great about movies, in general, to be able to see something...and to see different perspectives, I think there's a lot of power in that.”

Lightyear releases in theatres June 17, 2022