After making the Oscar-winning “Inside Out,” Pixar director and Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter suffered a mid-life crisis. As he experienced an emotional void, he began to ponder the meaning of life. The result is the existential follow-up, “Soul,” Pixar’s first Black-led feature. (Due to the pandemic, the movie will now debut December 25 on Disney+ instead of November 20 in theaters.) “I was feeling anxious,” he told IndieWire at a virtual junket. “‘Inside Out’ landed so well, but I had this existential fear that maybe all of this is meaningless: Am I supposed to be doing this [animation]?
The movie is about Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a struggling middle-school band teacher from Queens, who finally gets a gig playing piano at the Half Note in Manhattan, only to fall in a manhole. But he leaps off the monochromatic stairway to The Great Beyond and lands in The Great Before, a celestial training center where new souls are formed before birth. There he’s assigned to mentor the rebellious prankster, 22 (Tina Fey), who has no interest in life and refuses to be born. Yet Gardner’s unfulfilled life fascinates her, and together they escape to Earth on a new journey. The cast also include the voice work of Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mom, Libba, who owns a successful tailor shop, and Angela Bassett as Dorothea, the saxophone jazz legend and band leader who hires Joe.
Judging from the first 35 minutes, “Inside Out” was just a tune-up for “Soul” in exploring life’s big issues with a bold aesthetic: the tactile, weathered naturalism of New York contrasts sharply with the soft, de-saturated Great Before, and the souls are ephemeral, Aerogel-like creatures enhanced by edge-defining line work around the eyes and mouth. The early animated Oscar favorite might even compete for Best Picture, too, considering its cultural relevance and the dearth of high-profile releases and the expansion to 10 nominees because of COVID.
But then Docter has never shied away from tackling heavy topics with escapist fun and stylistic ingenuity. “Soul” explores the essence of life for Docter: “How do we use the limited amount of time that we have?”
Philosophically, Docter envisioned Joe as an essentialist. “He believes he was born to play [the piano] — and a lot of people can resonate with that.” (The animator reflected on the birth of his son, Nicholas, and how he already appeared to have a developed personality the moment he opened his eyes and gazed at him and the world.) By contrast, 22, the nihilist, lacks passion. “She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to be doing,” Docter added. “Does that make her broken? Is there something wrong with her? And so the film argues those two points back and forth. And I think we arrive at a different place than either of those [viewpoints].”
After chancing on a Herbie Hancock Master class video, in which the piano jazz legend described how Miles Davis turned his wrong chord into an improvisational epiphany, Docter landed on “Soul’s” central metaphor: The value of life can come from anywhere.
But Docter needed a Black collaborator to provide cultural authenticity. He tapped Kemp Powers, the music journalist-turned playwright and screenwriter, who adapted his “One Night in Miami” play into a movie for director Regina King, exploring the Black American Dream for Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Lesley Odom Jr.). Powers contributed so much in fleshing out Joe and his life in Queens (from public school to local barbershop hangout) that Docter gave the writer co-director credit.
“A lot of the themes of ‘One Night in Miami’ are reflective of my own life and my feelings as an artist,” said Powers. “One of the central ideas behind that is what, if any, social responsibility does a successful Black artist have? I don’t try to answer the question, but my personal belief is that no matter how successful I get, I am still a Black man and I have a certain amount of social responsibility in all of the arts that I create. And being at Pixar and working on ‘Soul’ was no different. Doing this deep-dive really did come naturally, but thankfully, I didn’t have to do it alone. So, we had many meetings and discussions about Joe as a team, where he grew up, the important people in his life, what made him tick, and then I reached into my own past and life experiences and tried to put that down on paper.
“Of course, we were making a film that is for everyone, but it’s also incredibly important that the people who are represented in that film and people from that culture feel that the people they see are represented authentically. And I don’t even think that’s new to ‘Soul.’ You saw that in ‘Coco.’ Joe was a middle-aged Black American man from New York, just like me. I took that responsibility seriously, but I reminded [the Pixar brain trust] from the very beginning that I’m just one person. And it was nice not to have to go on this journey alone.”
To that end, musician Jon Batiste composed the jazz score for the New York club, bringing a “cosmic optimism,” which posed a new animation challenge for Pixar in recreating Batiste playing the piano as Joe (from how his fingers move to how he breathes). This contrasts with the ethereal score for The Great Before by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the Emmy-winning “Watchmen” and David Fincher’s “Mank”).
And, similar to “Coco,” Pixar gathered a brain trust of Black artists and other cultural experts to consult from the very beginning on everything from design to behavior to how to light Black skin. This group included Batiste, Hancock, two musicians — Ahmir Questlove Thompson and Daveed Diggs — who were subsequently given voice roles, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (“The Arrival”), and anthropologist Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole. In addition, Pixar formed an internal consulting team of Black animators known as the inside/outside outreach initiative.
“It’s interesting, being in animation, you want to exaggerate things and give it a sense of style,” said Docter. “And there’s a long and shameful history of bad representation of Black people, and we wanted to make sure we were doing it respectfully with a sense of love, but not trying to make it a photo of a human. What’s the fun in that? That was a fine line.”
Meanwhile, other challenges of The Great Before included animating wise Counselors as abstract sculptures that function as living lines; The Hall of You, where Joe encounters highlights from his life as a series of lonely encounters and professional rejections; The Hall of Everything, a historical warehouse where Joe tries to help 22 find a spark of interest; The Zone, where passions come to life in astral planes; and a land of Lost Souls, where people in the Zone become disconnected from life.
“Those of us in animation — and I’ve flirted with this, for sure — have such passion for it that it can become an obsession,” Docter said. “And it can end up blocking you off from life, as opposed to engaging with it, which I like to think is the ultimate purpose of any art form. It gives you a new view of something you see every day. So the film really gave us an opportunity to play around with the dark sides of passion: What it means to have too much or not enough. In the end, there’s no clear cut right and wrong. Everything is shades and on a spectrum.”
Ironically, though, Docter has found new meaning since taking over as Pixar’s creative leader while making “Soul,” guiding and mentoring a younger generation of artists and directors and encouraging them to tackle the big questions of life from their own personal experiences and cultural perspectives. This includes Pixar’s next feature, “Luca” (June 18, 2021), the Italian coming-of-age buddy movie about the friendship between a boy and a sea monster, directed by Enrico Casarosa.
“That’s been a challenge to figure out,” Docter said. “I do have a certain amount of experience that I like to think would be beneficial, especially to new directors. And yet I also want to give them the opportunity maybe to fail. That might sound weird, but the biggest lessons I learned in life were when I failed. Though you end up beating yourself up for it, you take that lesson very strongly.
“It’s exciting as a studio,” added Docter. “These are new voices, they have different points of view, they don’t have the same references. But their references are different and will resonate with a whole new audience and that’s super important to keep reinventing ourselves. The most exciting part of the job is to see all of this innovation and new perspective in people.”