The man who’s made fully grown, emotionally stable adults weep in public knows he has a special kind of power over his audiences – the movie lovers who turn out for films including Toy Story 3, Inside Out and Up (who could forget those tear-filled opening minutes of Up?).
His colleague, Pixar producer Dana Murray tells news.com.au, laughing, “I think Pete likes to torture people, and he’s not happy unless he is!”
Docter sheepishly agrees.
“You could be right. OK, so I remember when we were working on Inside Out and Joy is stuck in the pit with Bing Bong and we were experimenting different things of getting them out, and then I came in one morning and I was so excited because I know how this is going to work.
“‘We have to kill off Bing Bong’ and to me it was exciting because I got emotional just thinking about it.
“So, it’s not that I’m a sadist, it’s just that I knew that this would hopefully reach in and kind of touch people’s hearts, which is the goal.
“I don’t know that it’s ‘where’s the scene that makes everybody cry?’ as it is more like ‘how do we connect with the audience, how do we make them see and feel like from the shoes of the main character?’. That’s what we’re all just trying to do in storytelling, is to get the audience to feel.”
Yes, Pixar’s goal is to move people. That’s been abundantly clear from its oeuvre of work over the past 25 years, starting with Toy Story and right up to its latest release, Soul, which hits Disney+ on Christmas Day.
Soul, directed by Docter and Kemp Powers from a screenplay by Docter, Powers and Mike Jones, was originally slated for a cinema release but due to the ongoing challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, it will be available only on streaming.
Centred on a jazz musician named Joe (Jamie Foxx), the story is set in New York City but also partly in what is termed the “Great Before” within the universe of the film.
Joe, on the verge of his big career break, falls into a manhole and his soul is transported out of his body. In the “Great Before”, a realm where souls are given characteristics such as curiosity or megalomania, as well as their “spark”, Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who would rather skip the whole living thing.
“She’s kind of a nihilist, right?” Docter explains. “She’s like, ‘What’s the point, why even go down there, everybody’s going to die anyway?’”
The coupling of a character desperately clinging to life (Joe) with one who has no faith in it (22), lets Soul explore some of the most fundamental questions about existence, including the big one, “What’s the meaning of life?”
Breaking the story about what constitutes a soul was fun, Docter says. “I took philosophy in a couple of classes in high school and remembered essentialism. Plato and Aristotle had this idea of everything we have we’re given at birth.
“And then of course you get into Nietzsche and nihilism and the meaninglessness of it all. It was fun to be able to explore those things through character.
“We did a lot of research into religion too to make sure we weren’t going to offend anyone accidentally or represent something that would contradict their own beliefs, but the film is largely about living, not about what happens after or before.”
Before anyone knew what Soul was about, it was thought to be a follow-up to Docter’s Inside Out, not a direct sequel but at least a spiritual successor. Inside Out ambitiously crafted a story about life changes and emotions. It was cerebral to say the least.
Yet, this complex story about subconsciousness was a family movie that had to work for children as well as adults. That’s the imaginative playground Pixar plays best in because it talks to kids, not talk down to them.
“Kids are no less smart than most adults,” Docter explains of the animation studio’s approach. “In fact, they’re very intuitive and perceptive. A lot of times you watch a movie with a little kid and an old person, the kid gets way more than the old person.
“They’re just very attuned to everything because they’re learning about life and they’re so quick and absorbent.”
Powers says kids also keep storytellers honest.
“You can fall in love with your own writing and kind of get too cutesy and too clever for your own good where no one understands it except you,” Powers says. “And I think that kids are a great honesty barometer because kids are so emotionally honest. Their emotions are real and raw.”
While it’s not surprising that Soul would be an emotional journey, what’s new is that it is Pixar’s first African American-led story.
Joe is black musician who is very embedded within the African American community in New York with scenes set at a barber shop, a jazz club and his mother’s tailor shop. It oozes specificity in a way we’ve never seen onscreen for a Pixar movie before.
The cast includes prominent black actors such as Foxx, Daveed Diggs, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett while Jon Batiste scored the jazz songs. But it’s Powers’ creative involvement that speaks volumes about Soul’s striving for authenticity.
Powers, a journalist turned writer, was hired to collaborate on the screenplay but ended up as co-director too.
“As a black artist I always feel a certain amount of social responsibility because I want to create things that my family and my community can enjoy but also feel pride in and hold up,” he says. “So I just felt really lucky and honoured to be one of the stewards of this first.
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“Of course, it’s a little sad that first seemed to come so late. You’re surprised when you think about the fact that it’s like, ‘Really, this is the first time this is happening?’. Why are we still talking about firsts?
“But the wonderful thing is even in the time that I’ve been here [at Pixar], I’ve seen noticeable change, organisational change.
“You’re seeing much more different voices. Of course, we can’t tell you some of the films coming down the pipe but the reality is a lot of those films are really indicative of some of these changes that we’ve seen behind the scenes.”
For Bassett, who has played memorable screen roles in films including Boyz n the Hood, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Malcolm X and Black Panther, she thinks it’s just the right time.
“It just took them all this time to get it right,” she tells news.com.au. “They had to get their ducks in a row. They had to find the right storyteller.
“I think it’s impactful, meaningful and poignant.
“Sometimes you can’t just put the ingredients in, put it in the oven and take it out in five minutes and expect everyone to love it.
“You’ve got to allow it to have the time that it needs, and this was the time for it.”
Soul is available to stream on Disney+ from Friday, December 25
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