The pandemic may have pushed back the theatrical release of Pixar’s “Soul” (from Juneteenth to November 20), but that didn’t stop Disney from dropping a new teaser trailer on Saturday, touting the original song, “Parting Ways” (written, produced, and performed by fusion specialist Cody ChesnuTT).
Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, follows up his Oscar-winning “Inside Out” with the Cannes-selected “Soul,” which explores the answers to some of life’s most important questions of identity. The musical fantasy introduces Pixar’s first Black protagonist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York middle-school band teacher who gets the ultimate gig playing piano at the top jazz club, only to fall into a manhole and journey to The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls are formed before birth. There he encounters precocious soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who rejects the appeal of the human experience. But they team up so Gardner can return to Earth and complete his journey.
As Gardner emphasizes in the one-minute teaser, “Spend your precious hours doing what will bring out the real you — the brilliant, passionate you.” The predominantly Black cast also includes the voice work of Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, and Daveed Diggs. Musician Jon Batiste composed the jazz score for the New York portion, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the ethereal score for The Great Before.
On Saturday, Essence Festival of Culture hosted a virtual “Soul” panel, which included Docter, co-director/screenwriter Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami,” “Star Trek: Discovery”), producer Dana Murray (“Lou” short), Batiste, and consultant Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole. It started with a simple idea, according to Docter. After coming off the high of “Inside Out” in 2015, he experienced a void: “I felt like I worked my whole life to make animated films, yet I found myself wondering, ‘Is this really what I’m born to do?'” he said. “I thought about my son. I took pictures the moment he arrived; I swear, we could already see him in there. And I was thinking, ‘How did that happen?’
“Well, because each of us is born with a soul…the soul is the center of who we are…it’s our makeup of what passions and inspirations we have. We wanted our main character in the film to have those passions born into him as well. It’s something we could all relate to and root for. A jazz musician was the perfect representation of what we were trying to say in the film.”
But, as with the Oscar-winning “Coco,” Pixar wanted to ensure cultural authenticity, so the studio hired Powers to collaborate on the script with Docter, Fey, and Mike Jones (the studio’s senior story and creative artist, and former IndieWire executive editor). His contribution was so integral to shaping Gardner’s character (they are both in their mid-40s and hail from New York City), that he was promoted to co-director: “But I had to transcend his experience,” Powers said, “and so they invited a lot of other Black voices into the fold.”
Pixar not only formed the “internal culture test” comprised of Black employees, but also recruited a range of outside consultants, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (“The Arrival”), and celebrated jazz musicians Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington. In addition, Batiste, Thompson, Diggs, and anthropologist Betsch Cole served on the consulting team.
“This group watched our story reels, gave us story notes, looked at the character designs and sets as they were built,” added Powers. “They even helped with animation reviews. These folks came in to go with us on the journey.”
For Batiste, who musically provided a “cosmic optimism,” his “goal was to make it authentic, as though it were a real jazz band, while also being accessible to all ages,” he said. “I wanted to make some themes that tie into the ethereal nature of the other world while still being in the Earth realm and vice versa. Trent and Atticus and I would sometimes blend the two worlds musically.”