'Lightyear' features Pixar's best montage since 'Up'

Welcome toThanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.

Pixar has a knack for creating montages that absolutely wreck you emotionally. Think the sweet but lonely sequence where Wall-E takes care of a hibernating Eve, or Joe Gardner’s flashbacks to his life on Earth in Soul. And it’s impossible to forget the greatest of all Pixar montages: Carl and Ellie’s married life in Up. This streak of tearjerking Pixar montages continues in the sci-fi adventure Lightyear.

Prequel to Toy Story, this film’s first act sees Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) and the Space Rangers stranded on an unknown planet. The rest of his crew, including his friend and commander Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba), build a settlement, but Buzz throws himself into test flights that he hopes will fix their hyperdrive and allow them all to go home. However, in the relatively short time he’s gone in space, approximately four years pass on the planet. So while Alisha matures and starts a family, Buzz stays the same age.

Lightyear’s montage deftly consolidates all this information into a series of short, moving vignettes. Again and again, Buzz flies out into space, and again and again, he fails. Every time he returns, he checks in with an aging Alisha. We see her get engaged, then married to her wife Kiko. They have a son and celebrate his graduation. The family invites Buzz to their 40th wedding anniversary, where that once-cut gay kiss occurs. Then, after one flight, Buzz returns and finds Alisha’s room empty. It’s a real punch to the gut, and one that I can’t help but compare to the moment in Up when you realize Ellie has passed away.

Both Lightyear’s and Up’s montages trace the relationships between two characters over time. So, it’s devastating when you realize that one of those characters is gone. It’s also a testament to both Lightyear and Up’s storytelling capabilities that both films are able to squeeze an entire life — and the impact of its loss — into such a short amount of time.

To learn more about how Lightyear stuck the landing on its pivotal montage, Mashable spoke to the film’sdirector and co-writer Angus MacLane and composer Michael Giacchino.

Getting the Lightyear montage exactly right

'lightyear' features pixar's best montage since 'up'

Lightyear and Hawthorne, an iconic duo. Credit: Pixar

When it came to fine-tuning the Lightyear montage, MacLane decided that less was more. “The montage actually used to include more,” MacLane told Mashable over a Zoom interview. “There were check-ins with Sox [voiced by Peter Sohn], and you saw more of Alisha’s life, but it ended up being the wrong rhythm for how much the audience could digest for that moment. It was a lot of trial and error.”

This trial and error included cutting assets that would have been too complicated or taken too long to animate. For example, the original plan for the montage included different iterations of autopilot I.V.A.N. as time went on. “It wasn’t cost-effective to do different shaped I.V.A.N.s only for one-shot for a few frames. That would take forever,” MacLane said. He noted that one of the biggest challenges of this montage was the sheer number of shots and assets within them. So, it was important to streamline the sequence while keeping the story’s main focus intact.

That focus is on Buzz’s spaceflights and his brief glimpses of Alisha’s life on the planet. As Buzz watches the arc of Alisha’s life play out in flashes, we see his panic that he may not be able to get her and the rest of the crew off-planet. But we also see just how happy Alisha is in this unexpected life path. As she notes to Buzz before the montage kicks off, she may never have met Kiko if the mission had gone according to plan.

The juxtaposition of Alisha’s happiness and Buzz’s frustration is bittersweet, yet it’s the perfect way to demonstrate just how differently time is working for both of them.

How to score a pitch-perfect Pixar montage

'lightyear' features pixar's best montage since 'up'

Buzz sets out on another test flight. Credit: Pixar

Adding another layer to the effectiveness of this montage is Michael Giacchino’s score. Giacchino is no stranger to composing music for iconic Pixar montages, having scored Up and its “Married Life” sequence. However, for Lightyear, Giacchino found himself in a very different emotional mindset.

“You always try to identify what is going on emotionally with these characters, and in this case, there was a desperation involved in what Buzz was trying to do,” Giacchino told Mashable over Zoom. “With Up it was a very different thing. It was a much more melancholy and nostalgic look at a person’s life. [Buzz] was somebody who was desperately trying to save the lives of the people around him, and he had this immense weight on his shoulders.”

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  • If you listen to the score from this scene — “Mission Perpetual” on the Lightyear soundtrack — that desperation comes through, building more and more as the song goes on. What starts as a hopeful mission becomes layered with frantic urgency. By the end, you feel like you’re straining to reach an unreachable goal right alongside Buzz.

    “I wanted to make sure that [the score conveyed] not only the sadness of missing all of these years of the people who are closest to you in your life,” Giacchino said, “But the desperation of trying to fix it before it’s too late for them.”

    If that sounds heavy, that’s because it is! This montage and the accompanying music carry a lot of emotional weight. You feel the full impact of that in the sudden silence that follows Buzz discovering Alisha is gone, and then in the ensuing scene where he processes her death (“The Lone Space Ranger” on the Lightyear soundtrack). It’s proof that Pixar’s montage game — and its ability to break us during the first act of its movies — remains unbeatable.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to “Mission Perpetual” and have an existential crisis.

    Lightyear is now in theaters.

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