With ‘Soul,’ Pixar animator finds an outlet for life’s big questions

Disney/Pixar
“Soul,” debuting on Disney+ on Dec. 25, is a metaphysical adventure in which the protagonist, a New York jazz musician, faces the question: What is the meaning of life?

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Pete Docter knew from an early age what he wanted to do in life. When a teacher observed him drawing “Peanuts” cartoon characters, she said, “Why don’t you make some of your own?” He won his first Oscar for “Up,” and more recently one for “Inside Out.” 

But even with all of his success, Mr. Docter, who is now Pixar’s chief creative officer, could not shake doubts about his self-worth. His latest project, “Soul,” is one outcome of his own search for meaning. Debuting Dec. 25, it features a New York jazz musician wrestling with what his purpose in life is.

Why We Wrote This

Pete Docter, the Oscar winner behind Pixar’s latest movie, has grappled with what brings meaning to life. In an interview with the Monitor, he talks about the film’s journey – and his own.

A lifelong Christian, Mr. Docter often turns to prayer for support. He says just sitting down with his sketchbook to draw can be a moment of holy communion – a reminder to be present in life rather than mired in one’s negative thoughts. 

“What we’re all looking for is this idea that we’re not just a lone speck floating around, that we’re somehow connected to something bigger than just us,” says Mr. Docter. “There is an understanding in faith that everyone is worthy and everyone is loved. And that kind of breaks your heart wide open when you can really let that in.” 

In 2016, Pete Docter bounded on to the stage at the Academy Awards to accept an Oscar. Holding his gleaming statuette for the top animated film, the director of Pixar’s “Inside Out” proclaimed that everyone in the room was fortunate, “because, regardless of a gold man or not, we get to make stuff!”

But during his descent from that artistic Everest, the animator behind “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up” was surprised to find that he didn’t feel any different. The win hadn’t fulfilled him. And the prospect of returning to work left him dejected. In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Docter recalls wondering, “How many more of these do I have in me? And really, is this the best use of the time that I have on Earth? Could I be doing something more either for myself or for the world?”

The search for meaning

Why We Wrote This

Pete Docter, the Oscar winner behind Pixar’s latest movie, has grappled with what brings meaning to life. In an interview with the Monitor, he talks about the film’s journey – and his own.

The turmoil within Mr. Docter sparked the idea for Pixar’s latest, “Soul” (premiering on Disney+ on Dec. 25). It’s a metaphysical adventure in which the protagonist faces the same question that Mr. Docter had to answer for himself: What is the meaning of life?

“Soul” features Pixar’s first Black lead character and is co-directed by Kemp Powers, who is also Black. It is Mr. Docter’s first directorial effort since he became the studio’s chief creative officer. The movie is imbued with his signature traits as a storyteller: offbeat whimsy anchored by a deeply felt wisdom. 

“There’s a real sophisticated gentleness to those movies,” says Derrick Clements, a fan who interviewed key figures at the studio, including Mr. Docter, for “The Pixar Podcast.” “They have a lot of really big ideas that they’re wrestling with.”

The story follows a New York City jazz pianist, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who feels as if his life has amounted to nothing. But on the eve of what promises to be a major career break, he is fatally injured. Joe’s soul enters a realm that iconic Pixar character Buzz Lightyear might describe as “infinity and beyond.” 

Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP/File
Pixar’s latest film, "Soul," is the brainchild of director and chief creative officer Pete Docter. He drew from his own life for its themes.

“We’re more than just the physical stuff of our bones and skin,” says Mr. Docter, musing on the meaning of the film’s title. “There’s something at the heart of each of us that is the essence of who we are ... that goes on after we die.”

In a bid to return to his body, Joe finds his way to The Great Before, an onboarding center for souls preparing to go to Earth for the first time. Joe’s ticket back is mentoring another soul, known as 22 (Tina Fey), who has spent all eternity trying to figure out her life’s purpose.

Early inspiration

Like Joe, Mr. Docter knew from an early age what he wanted to do in life. When his fourth grade teacher observed him drawing “Peanuts” cartoon characters, she said, “Why don’t you make some of your own?” Mr. Docter’s first job after college was helping Pixar develop its breakout hit, “Toy Story.” 

He won his first Oscar for “Up,” which features a cantankerous older gentleman who ties so many helium-filled balloons to his home that it floats away. 

But even with all of his success, Mr. Docter could not shake doubts about his self-worth, which made him feel as untethered as that house. “Soul” grapples with that age-old philosophical dilemma of whether there’s any purpose to life. “We try to make it fun and approachable by dramatizing that in the form of these two characters,” says Mr. Docter. “One who’s basically an essentialist. He believes, ‘I was given this thing of music and that’s what I’m meant to do.’ And then we have this soul who refuses to go down and be born on Earth. She is kind of a nihilist. You know, there’s no point to anything.”

A lifelong Christian, Mr. Docter addressed his anxiety by turning to prayer. Sometimes, he says, just sitting down with his sketchbook to draw something as simple as the front door of a house is a moment of holy communion – a reminder to be present in life rather than mired in one’s negative thoughts. “Soul” doesn’t have any Christian overtones, but its characters have to reframe preexisting ideas of what gives life meaning.

“What we’re all looking for is this idea that we’re not just a lone speck floating around, that we’re somehow connected to something bigger than just us,” says Mr. Docter. “There is an understanding in faith that everyone is worthy and everyone is loved. And that kind of breaks your heart wide open when you can really let that in.”

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