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Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Deftly Tackles the Risky Constructs of Life, Death, and How We Enter the World

Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ new film skillfully embraces complex issues of religion, culture, and race, with the studio’s first Black leading character struggling to answer the question, ‘What makes you…YOU?’

What could be riskier than trying to release a film during a pandemic? It’s safe to say, yesterday’s announcement by The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek that Pixar Animation Studios’ latest feature film, Soul, would bypass its planned November 20 U.S. theatrical release and instead debut December 25 on Disney+, what a huge disappointment for everyone at the studio.

Four plus years in the making, Soul, directed by legendary two-time Oscar winner Pete Docter and animation newcomer Kemp Powers, seemed destined to brings huge smiles both to audiences and studio accountants; Docter, who in June 2018, during the heart of Soul’s production, was promoted to Pixar Chief Creative Officer, has directed some of the studios’ greatest financial and critical successes, including Inside Out (2015), Up (2009) and Monsters, Inc. (2001). If anyone understands and embraces the inherent complexities, challenges, and risks involved in developing and finishing successful big budget animated features, it’s the humble Minnesota native. But, as every animation director will tell you, every film is different, every film is difficult, and every film presents its own challenges. Each film, in its own way, feels like nothing you’ve ever done previously completely prepares you for the difficulties that lay ahead. Every day is another day in paradise.

So, in addition to the laundry list of challenges every animated feature faces during its production journey, often 5-6 years long, Soul faced a heaping helping of uncertainty not just because of its deeply philosophical storyline, but because it finished production, and now heads to audiences, during the largest pandemic in a century, as well as a period in the U.S. that’s exploded with racial strife and political warfare not seen in our lifetimes.

The film, which deals with complex issues that touch on religion, culture, and race, is also Pixar’s first film with a Black lead. Boom!

But don’t let these weighty issues give you one second’s pause; Soul finds Docter, his co-director Powers, producer Dana Murray and the entire Pixar team at their finest.  Soul is a risky film for risky times; though its journey began long before the start of current societal upheavals that seem to grow larger with each passing day, the film brings the studios’ unique brand of distinctive design, gorgeous animation and playful humor to audiences at a most opportune, and important time.

Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22, who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions.

The film’s tagline posits something deeply philosophical: What makes you… YOU? It touches on issues of life, death, and what type of person we are as we enter this world. What shapes our very soul? As Powers notes, “Soul is a story about the meaning of life and the connections we make with each other.” Pretty heady for a cartoon.

The film’s idea of The Great Before, the place where souls are trained so they don’t just show up on Earth unprepared, touches on the very notion of humanity’s essence; in talking about how humans are bestowed the humanity they’re born with, you couldn’t possibly touch on more foundational and delicate constructs of religion and culture. Now, throw in what shouldn’t be, but is, the controversial issue of race, with a Black lead character fronting a Pixar film for the very first time. Without delving into the hugely polarizing and contested discussion on racial diversity at all levels of the entertainment business, from executive decision-making to casting (recent Big Mouth, Family Guy and The Simpsons recasting characters of color for example), practically every pillar of the film’s story rests on constantly shifting, and potentially shaky narrative ground.

Not only that, don’t forget, the film must not only be culturally and racially sensitive, it must be entertaining. Risk and high-brow concepts aside, Soul’s 90 minutes must wow the crowd.  So how do you embrace and integrate these diverse elements into something cohesive, appropriate, and enjoyable? For Docter, who has directed some of the studio’s greatest films, as always, he trusts the Pixar development process.   

“Well, in some ways, just because of the climate we're in, what's happened to the world, you'd be stupid not to acknowledge that this film is risky,” Docter shares. “There's just a lot of unknowns. It used to be you could look at market trends and kind of say, ‘Well, these films did this, and so therefore we're predicting that.’ But the future is a little bit less certain right now in a lot of ways. That's obviously nothing we have control of. But in terms of what we can control, I still believe that people want to see themselves up on the screen.  They want to be acknowledged, that their own struggles in life are shared with other people, that they're not alone out there, which is an easy thing to feel, especially now.  There are days where you just don't see anybody else, and you feel like, ‘Am I the only one out here?  Am I the only one going through this?’”

Explaining that Pixar tries to tap directors who will talk about their own experiences in the hopes that their fears, successes, and joys will also resonate with audiences, Docter says, “So, is it risky? I don't know if I really think of it that way.  I just think of it as, ‘Well, this is what we're meant to be doing,’ I don't want to sound evangelical about it, but that's what we've based our successes on in the past, and, it's what we look for in our present and future. That’s how we make films.”

An award-winning playwright, journalist and screenwriter, Powers notes the story didn’t always resonate well with test audiences. “During screenings, there were a couple of points in the film where it felt like we had a completely split audience,” he says. “Without giving anything away, those moments boiled down to some real philosophical debates about how this is going to land with specific groups. I definitely had some nights where it kept me up. For sure, it challenged me as a writer to come up with new ways of solving these problems.”

“Pete, he makes the best films, but his process can be difficult to manage because he likes to search and try a lot of different things before he makes a decision,” say Dana Murray, the film’s producer. “That can be hard on teams and departments. They’re up for it. They invested and dedicated 100 percent. But it creates more work. On top of that, he was named [Pixar] CCO in the middle of the project. And on top of that, he had maybe a year taken out of the schedule. And on top of that, we were making sure there was a lot of care and time spent on the film’s cultural authenticity. So that added a layer on top of everything. We’re also avoiding the landmines of making sure we're not upsetting any religion; we spent a lot of time talking about what religions believe, making sure we don't go down the wrong path. So, you know, there were a lot of layers. A lot of things going on.”

Powers, who came onto the film in 2018, was a newcomer to animation. There was no honeymoon. “Coming to Pixar, I guess it felt like Navy Seal training school for animation,” he laughs. “You know what I mean? Like if you can get through this process, land a plane, and complete this film, you feel like you’re ready to take on the world. ‘Oh yeah… I'm ready. Get out of the way, I'll make that film too!” 

As far as Pixar’s well-known development process, Powers notes, “What surprised me most about the Pixar process was the ‘brain trust,’ which I realize now everyone knows about, but I didn't know about coming in. I had to learn how to deal with that iterative brain trust process, where you make things, you put it into the brain trust, you spend hours and hours having it torn to pieces, you blow it up, you go back to the drawing board and you do it again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again, and you cry and you do it again and again and again.”

Laughing once more, Powers adds, “Look, I feel lucky in that before I did this, I spent 17 years as a journalist, so I have incredibly thick skin, which really prepared me for getting notes from folks like Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich. They don't mince words. That's the most surprising part of the process. But, coming out the other end, I feel it's made me a better storyteller in any way, shape, or form. It leaves you with a real sense of confidence. So, in many ways, making Soul was both the hardest job I've ever done in my life and the most satisfying.”

Describing working through the film’s narrative and story construct challenges, Docter adds, “Even when we felt like, ‘Oh, we're not there yet,’ we had faith that we would get there. From the get-go, we knew this was not a theological film. It's not a literal representation of anything. It's all metaphor. But that doesn't prevent people from reading it certain ways. So, one of the biggest things was testing it out in front of people, getting feedback, and then adjusting. Oftentimes on this film, we put something out there and certainly didn't intend it to be read as ‘bleh,’ whatever ‘bleh’ is. But people would read it as ‘bleh.’ And so, you have to go back and say, ‘Okay, how do we step away from that misread?’ I will not lie. There were definitely times where I was exhausted. Regardless of whether we could change something or not, I was like, ‘I'm done. I'm just so tired.’ But in the end, you pick yourself up and get back to it. And of course, the crew did an amazing job.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.