While Pete Docter has been busy adjusting to his new role as Pixar’s chief creative officer after succeeding mentor John Lasseter last year, he’s also been quietly directing his fourth feature, “Soul,” (June 19, 2020), which Disney/Pixar slyly announced Wednesday on Twitter. All we know about “Soul” (produced by Dana Murray of the “Lou” short) is that “Pixar will take you on a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions.”
With such a spirit world connotation, “Soul” should make quite an imaginative follow-up to Docter’s Oscar-winning “Inside Out” (which was released, by the way, on June 19, 2015, exactly five years to the day earlier). And we can only surmise that the animation will be just as thrillingly innovative. Thank goodness that Docter insisted on finishing “Soul” as part of his agreement to take over creative control of Pixar. We can only hope that he will not have to give up directing altogether, since he’s arguably Pixar’s best director, as evidenced by his creative growth spurt from “Monsters, Inc.” to the Oscar-winning “Up” to the masterful “Inside Out.”
One encouraging sign is that next year will see the return of original content at Pixar. First up is the fantasy “Onward” (March 6, 2020). Directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), it finds two elf brothers (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) going on a journey to discover if there’s any magic left in the world. Although the schedule beyond next year is unannounced (June 18, 2021, and March 18 and June 17, 2022), rest assured that we will find out more at the D23 Expo (August 23-25 in Anaheim).
Yet since Docter’s promotion last year, he has reportedly begun greenlighting several original new projects, including the first feature from Domee Shi (the Oscar-winning “Bao” short), which also means increased inclusion and diversity among the directing ranks at Pixar.
But in searching for more clues about “Soul” from the films of the soft-spoken and lanky Docter, the one common denominator is fear: “Monsters, Inc.” is self-evident, of course, yet it was initially about an accountant whose fears come to life as monsters. Then, the idea for “Up” stemmed from Docter’s fear that work was becoming too oppressive, and so he fantasized about running away. “Up” eventually evolved into a story about grieving and the fear of never achieving your dream. On the surface, “Inside Out” was about a little girl’s fear of being uprooted and starting over in a new city without her friends. But, for Docter, going inside her mind to animate her emotions represented a deeper existential fear on the part of the director about the loss of childhood.
Ironically, Docter told IndieWire that he experienced an epiphany about “Inside Out” late in production that saw him remove Fear as the antagonist. “And I realized, well, it’s gotta be Sadness,” he said. “And, specifically, it got to the point where we’re three-and-a-half years in and we needed story approvals and footage to go forward, and yet I was feeling like, this wasn’t working. What if I get fired? What if I quit? I could just quit….I could run away. You entertain these thoughts… and then what would happen? I’d miss my friends. I’d especially miss the friends that I’ve experienced the greatest joy and sadness and fear and anger with.
“And then I realized: Wait a minute — this is key to the story I’m telling right now at work. These emotions are vital to the most important things in our lives. Here I was thinking: If I had nothing in the world, I would want to hold onto my friendships, my relationships. And those relationships are central because of emotion. And so that really jazzed me…and we re-conceived the film.”
Moving forward as the new creative head of Pixar, Docter can certainly leverage his vast leadership experience with the vaunted Braintrust. “It’s a very interesting process, but most of the time, everybody tries to get on board with what it is you’re trying to do and help problem solve in that direction,” he said. “But…Andrew [Stanton] and Brad [Bird] certainly have the clout to be able to try and push you in a different direction.”
And, as far as grappling with internal conflicts for storytelling, Docter acknowledged that it’s become a way of life at Pixar. “I don’t know if it’s a crucial part of what we do, but it seems to be a big element not just in my films but in all the films that we do here. I’ve never really analyzed it, but in some way I’m still coming to terms with and getting a sense of pretty formative stuff. It’s crucial stuff.”