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Which 1990s Action Director Would Have Most Likely Made ‘Lightyear’?

Pixar’s latest is billed as the film that made Andy want to get a Buzz Lightyear figure in ‘Toy Story.’ But does the new movie feel more like a Steven Spielberg picture or a Chris Columbus joint?

Ever since Pixar released the first trailer for Lightyear, the vaunted animation studio has had to deal with a fair amount of audience confusion: “So, wait, is this a movie about the Buzz Lightyear action figure?” No no, Pixar responded, it was about the real person who inspired the action figure. (For those who have seen Lightyear, you know the filmmakers took the extra step of inserting a title card at the start that explains that Andy, the boy in Toy Story, got a Buzz Lightyear toy after seeing Lightyear, his new favorite movie. Essentially, Lightyear is supposed to be a sci-fi action film that came out in the 1990s.) 

But that didn’t clear up all the confusion: For one thing, Lightyear is animated, but is the actual movie supposed to be animated? Lightyear director Angus MacLane has clarified that, saying it’s supposed to be a live-action movie. However, that doesn’t answer another question, which is, “So, who made the live-action Lightyear that we’re supposed to be watching in animated form?” MacLane had an odd reply for that one.

“[W]e realized we are the filmmakers because the credits have our names on it,” he said recently. “[So] I think there’s an in-universe version of each of us [and] that we are now Disney characters.”

Confused yet? 

To be sure, this is the kind of movie-culture minutiae that drives sane, normal people slowly mad. But as one of those folks who somewhat obsesses over this kind of thing, I’ll confess it was a question I had, too: Shouldn’t Lightyear’s credits list the fictional people who made this made-up film? Ultimately, none of it really matters — and, besides, Lightyear is pretty disappointing, so it’s not worth fixating on — but I couldn’t help myself. I had to figure out who would have directed the not-real Lightyear movie.

The original Toy Story came out in 1995, so assuming that that movie is set that year, that would mean Andy saw Lightyear probably in the previous 12 months or so, if not more recently. With that as my guide, I put together a list of 10 possible directors who might have potentially made Lightyear, ranking them by how likely they would be based on their career and the Lightyear film itself. 

After spending way too much time on this, I think I have the right answer. (And, just to warn you, there are no women or people of color on this list — Hollywood blockbusters were almost exclusively the realm of white men back then.) 

10. Steven Spielberg 

The king of blockbusters, Spielberg seems a natural fit for Lightyear. It’s a story with plenty of spectacle, as well as heart, and it’s meant to play to all audiences — especially the family crowd. That sure sounds like the man who, shortly before Lightyear would have come out, directed Jurassic Park, which set a new bar for special effects, making a ludicrous amount of money in the process. 

But by the mid-1990s, that Spielberg had mostly taken a backseat to the one who created Schindler’s List, winning an Oscar and demonstrating that he was more than just a popcorn filmmaker. Sure, he reluctantly agreed to do 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but soon his energies were focused on dramas like Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Lightyear would have felt like a step back for a guy whose sights were set on more ambitious fare. 

Buzz v Evil Robot

9. James Cameron

Lightyear pays homage to sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps no filmmaker of the early 1990s was more essential to expanding the genre’s vocabulary than Cameron, who had recently blown minds with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. So a boisterous adventure starring a famed Space Ranger who’s grappling with time travel and evil robots would certainly be up the filmmaker’s alley. 

But Lightyear is too sweet and funny for Cameron — it’s not that he doesn’t try to insert a little comedy into his movies, but his sense of humor tends toward the bro-y. Also, most of his films around that time were rated R, which Lightyear is most assuredly not. Funny enough, the movies he’s made since 1995 — Titanic and Avatar — were a milder PG-13, but even then Lightyear’s PG antics would probably turn him off. Put it this way: His version of Lightyear might have had Buzz’s robot-cat sidekick Sox swear a bunch — or yell, “Game over, man!” at least once. 

8. Michael Bay 

This is an especially fascinating case of “What if?” Bay made his feature debut with 1995’s Bad Boys, a raucous buddy-cop movie that showed off his own bad-boy side. A year later, he did The Rock, and then in 1998 he was chronicling the exploits of brave oil-drillers saving humanity in Armageddon. In quick fashion, he established the template for what audiences would come to know (and sometimes love) as “Bayhem,” his trademark over-caffeinated style of blockbuster cinema. 

Lightyear is far less frenetic than what Bay would have delivered, but it’s interesting to imagine an alternate timeline of his career where, rather than directing Bad Boys and The Rock, he got his start with a sci-fi family film. Because Lightyear isn’t especially good, I’d say we actually got the better scenario, with Bay (for all his irritating indulgences and hyperactive visuals) at least coming up with a new approach to action movies. Frankly, Lightyear could have used some of his pizzazz.

7. Peter Hyams 

Film critic Nick Pinkerton did his own version of my game, going so far as to speculate exactly what weekend Lightyear would have opened, which studio released the movie, how it did commercially, and who was behind the camera. His pick was Hyams, a director who probably isn’t as well-known as he should be. Often writing and shooting his movies himself, the now-78-year-old director worked on sci-fi movies like Outland and 2010, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. And in 1994, he made Timecop, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle that remains one of his biggest hits. (The following year, they’d reunite for the “Die Hard in a hockey arena” action flick Sudden Death.) 

Hyams always brought a sturdy competency to his films, making him an ideal B-movie director. You could see how Lightyear would fit that model: The movie isn’t especially inspired, but it moves along at a pretty decent pace, delivering the requisite amounts of action and suspense. This is what Hyams specialized in, although he didn’t work in family-film mode much. 

Buzz with his dutiful robot companion, Sox (voice of Peter Sohn)

6. Joel Schumacher 

The same year that Toy Story came out, Schumacher released his biggest blockbuster up to that time, directing Batman Forever, which sought to reenergize the franchise in the wake of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton leaving after 1992’s Batman Returns. But because Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were such high-profile films — and especially because the culture still freaks out about the nipples on the batsuit — it’s easy to overlook the movies this former costume designer made beforehand. 

From The Lost Boys to Flatliners, Schumacher (who died in 2020) had an ease with genre films, graduating to classy, pulpy John Grisham adaptations (The Client, A Time to Kill) and the occasional social satire/character study (Falling Down). In other words, he was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and you could imagine him trying his hand at Lightyear’s mix of sentiment and interstellar adventure. The one thing that keeps the movie from really feeling like one of Schumacher’s, though, is it isn’t weird/funky enough. Buzz’s suit wouldn’t have nipples on it, but the filmmaker’s impish humor is nowhere to be seen in this pretty square sci-fi tale. 

5. Stephen Herek

Here’s a question: What movie studio do we think put out Lightyear back in the 1990s? Because Pixar films are released through Disney, I couldn’t help but think that the made-up Lightyear movie would, too. And if that’s the case, then there’s a decent chance Herek would have been calling the shots. 

Getting his start as the director of hip 1980s cult comedies (Critters, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), he pivoted to helming Disney family films, responsible for The Mighty Ducks, The Three Musketeers, Mr. Holland’s Opus and 101 Dalmatians in the 1990s. To be sure, those later films weren’t especially riveting — but, then again, neither is Lightyear, which feels like it’s the work of a dutiful craftsman who stays out of the way and makes sure everything stays under-budget. One thing, though: Herek didn’t do a ton of sci-fi films, so would he have been able to handle that element of this movie? 

4. Chris Columbus

Long before he directed the first two Harry Potter films, getting the franchise off to a solid but unspectacular start, Columbus was the guy who made modest, likable family comedies — including the incredibly popular Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. Lightyear would have been a bit of a change of pace for him in the mid-1990s — he’d never made anything to that scale at that stage of his career — but the movie’s trumpeting of community would have played to his strengths. Often in a Columbus film, the once-fractious characters realize how much they need each other, leading to plenty of hugs, tears and lessons learned. Spoiler Alert: That’s basically Lightyear

Buzz and his crew

3. Robert Zemeckis

Thanks to Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis established himself as the heir apparent to Spielberg in the 1980s, focusing on incredibly appealing blockbusters for all ages. (And, of course, Spielberg served as a mentor to his friend during those years.) But Zemeckis got grander with 1994’s Forrest Gump, which won a slew of Oscars and gave him an air of artistic seriousness. 

You could sense that elevated self-importance with Zemeckis’ next project, the ponderous Contact, but if he had wanted to do something a little more escapist instead, he’d have been a good fit for Lightyear, which would have appealed to his wide-eyed love of science fiction — not to mention his preference for sentimental stories. Plus, the film’s jokey sense of humor and adorable side characters would have been in his wheelhouse. To be honest, I haven’t loved a lot of the films Zemeckis has made in recent years — Lightyear might have seemed “slight” from an Oscar-winner, but it would be better than Welcome to Marwen.

2. Ron Howard 

Around the time that Andy presumably saw Lightyear, Howard was busy making a very different story of space exploration, the Oscar-nominated true story Apollo 13. But by the mid-1990s, the kid-actor-turned-director had firmly established himself as someone who had no problem tackling any genre, whether it was a romantic comedy (Splash), whimsical crowd-pleaser (Cocoon), tearjerking family film (Parenthood), sweeping period epic (Far and Away) or workplace drama (The Paper). Nobody would have been surprised if his next project was this saga of a spaceman who thinks he doesn’t need other people, having to learn that teamwork helps the dream work. Lightyear is the sort of sappy but fun adventure that’s Howard’s speciality. Depending on your feelings about Howard — or Lightyear — that’s either a compliment or an insult. 

1. Joe Johnston

In the mid-1990s, nobody was making bighearted family films like Johnston. Getting his start behind the scenes on the original Star Wars trilogy — and winning an Oscar for the effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark — he transitioned to being a filmmaker with 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and since then he’s consistently directed movies that give off a goofy-big-kid energy. Indeed his films of the early-to-mid-1990s, The Rocketeer and the Robin Williams Jumanji, are geared for young people but cater to all audiences, buoyed by a gee-whiz spirit that’s utterly uncynical. 

When he’s tried to fill the shoes of grander filmmakers — he’s responsible for the deeply mediocre Jurassic Park III — it wasn’t a good fit, but it made sense for him to be behind the camera for 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which learned hard into Steve Rogers’ earnest heroism. (Funny enough, that movie starred Chris Evans, who provides Buzz’s voice in Lightyear.) All those qualities are felt in this new Pixar film — so much so that it’s very easy to picture Johnston’s sensibility guiding this story. Frankly, I wish he had made Lightyear — it might have a little more snap than it does, whether it came out in 1995 or today.