National Post (National Edition)

Soul searching



In its 25-year history, the animated characters in many of Pixar's movies have sometimes wrestled with existentia­l questions: “What is the meaning of life? How do we discover our true purpose?”

But what Pixar had never done before in any of its previous 22 feature films was try to answer what happens before we're born.

“There hasn't been much said about where we come from before life,” the two-time Oscar-winning director Pete Docter muses. So, along with co-director and writer Kemp Powers, Docter, the filmmaker behind Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, found himself tackling Soul, the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) — a middle school music teacher who, on the eve of his big break, takes one wrong step and finds himself in the Great Before.

“There were a lot of people who were kind of like, `What are you talking about? There are too many landmines around those ideas,'” Academy Award-nominated producer Dana Murray recalls.

Joe doesn't feel like he belongs in this land of new souls. But after a mix-up on his way to the Great Beyond, he finds himself assigned to mentor Soul 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience.

But through partnering with 22 in the Great Before, Joe comes to see his life through a new lens. “Life is full of possibilit­ies,” he tells 22, “you just need to know where to look.”

Joined by Powers and Murray, Docter talked about entering the spiritual realm with Pixar's latest film, which is streaming on Disney+.

Q When did you know that Soul could work for a feature-length film?

Docter: The truth is you never know … There's a lot of mess, but a lot of trust that has to happen because it's often not until the very end that you know if you've accomplish­ed what you set out to do. That's just part and parcel of the creative business, I guess. You just have to trust that it's going to work out. When people ask, `What's the Pixar secret?' We have great people and we have a system that allows us to iterate a lot and therefore make mistakes. We try things out and if it doesn't work, we dump it and change it. I think between those few things, and a lot of hard work, that's how we end up with what we end up with.

Q Pixar films always work on two levels for both adults and kids. But I think this film might find some older viewers thinking about their own lives. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

Docter: A lot of people feel like the right way to live is to do that thing that you love and have passion for and then you set a goal and once you get there, then you've made it: the end. So many people find out that when they either fail to or succeed in those goals, it doesn't answer everything. It doesn't complete your life in a way where you say, `I'm done. I'm happy now.' It's more complex than that. If you've set your mind in the right place, you can have contentmen­t wherever you are. That's easy for me to say, I lead a pretty nice life, but there's been a lot written about that and I hope it will allow people to recognize the amazing things that they do have in their own lives that maybe they take for granted or aren't as appreciati­ve of and that can make all the difference.

Q Soul was supposed to open in theatres, but it's streaming. I've seen almost all the Pixar films in a theatre and there is something magical about having that experience in a roomful of strangers. Did you think about possibly hanging on to this a little longer so it could get a theatrical release?

Murray: People miss the communal experience of going out to the theatre and I don't think that human experience is going to go away just because there's a lot of stuff on streaming. We're lucky to have this platform, but I think once the world is safe again people will be ready to go out.

Q There are two different soundtrack­s to this film — a jazz one composed by Jon Batiste and a dreamier electronic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. How did that come about? Docter: We wanted the jazz to be as authentic as possible and Jon has this incredible knowledge of jazz as a form. Trent and Atticus came about because we knew we wanted a different feel for the film. A lot of Pixar films have the big orchestra, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I always thought, `How can we shake that up?'

Q Pete, Toy Story, which you helped develop, just turned 25. Since then, Pixar has gone on to make a number of iconic animated movies. For you, what was that like? And for Dana and Kemp, what has it been like to be part of that storytelli­ng tradition a quarter century in?

Docter: It was funny how ramshackle it felt at the beginning. It was almost as if we were holding the thing together with duct tape. People were running down the hall and screaming, `Hey, can we change this thing?' Now there's systems, traditions, scheduling and all this, and yet, at the core of it, it's about trust and making things better … mostly thanks to the brilliant people we get to work with. Murray: There are so many new young voices coming in … yet there's this great, rich history.

It's cool to see those two worlds working together.

Powers: I watched the 25th anniversar­y video (for Toy Story) … it was a real reminder that when they did that first film, 3D animation wasn't an industry. It wasn't something that anyone was doing. In a way I thought, `Wow, how freeing must that have been, where you're having fun and throwing ideas around and, relatively speaking, there's nothing to lose, because a corporatio­n doesn't have its future bet on you yet.' Being the new guy here, you're not discourage­d from swinging for the fences. You would think that 25 years after pulling the craziest ideas out of the air, it would be more conservati­ve. But if anything, when you pitch ideas and you say, `Can we do something that's never been done before?' it's still being encouraged.

 ?? DISNEY / PIXAR ?? Pixar's latest film Soul tackles age-old questions about the meaning of life and is currently streaming on Disney+.
DISNEY / PIXAR Pixar's latest film Soul tackles age-old questions about the meaning of life and is currently streaming on Disney+.
 ??  ?? Pete Docter
Pete Docter

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