When you think of Pixar, you think of heart-wrenching stories peppered with humor and adventure. With “Soul,” you get something a bit different – an exploration of that ever-unanswerable question: Why are we here?
Director Pete Docter, co-director and screenwriter Kemp Powers, producer Dana Murray, and stars Jamie Foxx (voice of Joe Gardner), Tina Fey (voice of 22), Phylicia Rashad (voice of Libba Gardner), and Angela Bassett (voice of Dorothea Williams) recently sat down to discuss the “Soul” in advance of its Dec. 25 release exclusively on Disney+.
In the latest film from Pixar Animation Studios, Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher who finally has a shot at his big break when he gets invited to play at the best jazz club in New York City. Unfortunately, one misstep takes him from the city streets to The Great Before – a place beyond existence where new souls get their personalities before going to Earth. Together, with 22, a troublesome soul who has no interest in being alive, Joe may just find the answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
The development of “Soul” began as something personal for Docter, and eventually led the creative team to deciding upon the world of jazz music and its roots in African American culture to help tell this story.
“At the very beginning, it was a very personal story of trying to, for myself, figure this out. What are we going through? What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? And wanting to take people on this sort of artist’s journey of finding a character that we could root for, that we find compelling and interesting,” said Docter. “We played around for a little while with an actor or a scientist. But as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous, you know? You do it because you love it and you have a passion for it. So, as soon as we hit on that, one of our consultants called jazz ‘Black improvisational music,’ and we realized we have to make this character Black. He has to be from that culture that brought us this great American art form.”
The team at Pixar knew that they would have to have a diverse team of creatives to make this movie the best it could possibly be – which led to playwright Kemp Powers joining as co-director and screenplay writer.
“When Dana and Pete first approached me to become involved in the film, the first thing I asked was, ‘Well, what work of mine have you read?’ And they had actually read a play of mine that I wrote called ‘One Night in Miami.’ I was like, ‘Okay, so, you know what you’re getting into. Like, you know my politics. You know that I’m gonna be pushing for, like, a lot of black stuff.’ Because I can’t help myself. I think our culture is amazing. And a lot of people, particularly in Hollywood, will tell you that, in order to appeal to a wide audience, you want to get away from that. I feel the opposite. I feel there is universality by going for hyper-specificity,” said Powers. “This was a wonderful opportunity to both do something that my family, that my kids and my mom and all my relatives could be proud [of], but be something that everyone could enjoy and just show how the Black American experience and our humanity is as universal as anyone else’s experience.”
This thread of the Black American experience permeates the entire film, right down to the details, thanks to Powers’ insistence and Pixar’s openness to telling a true-to-life, relatable story.
“To be honest, there were a lot of times, in making this film, where I kept going like, ‘Can we really do this? Are we gonna be able to say jazz is Black improvisational music? Is the guy gonna be able to say he can’t catch a cab? Like, are we gonna be able to do all these things?,’ said Powers. “And, honestly, no one even batted an eye. And I don’t think it hurts the film at all. I think it’s part of what makes the texture of this film so rich and honest and sincere.”
Much of the film takes place in The Great Before, a pre-existence seminar where new souls find their “spark” and personalities that will eventually lead them to their great purpose on Earth. Creating a visual representation of this abstract, fantastical place took quite a bit of head-scratching to nail down, according to Docter.
“A lot of the underpinnings of the story are very philosophical. So, we looked at ancient Greece, and we were picturing the large fields where you’d stand and Plato would pontificate or whatever. But then, we realized, oh, well, we don’t want it to be specific to any culture, because everybody around the world started here. So, it can’t be culturally specific,” said Docter. “Then we kind of experimented for a while and looked ultimately at some World’s Fair images. There are these big buildings that are meant to inspire and be austere and some of them are shaped like big tires. Some of them are just cool, abstract shapes. That was kind of where we started. Then we wanted [the buildings] to feel explicit as to what [they’re] doing. So, we get to see what the purpose of these buildings are.”
One of the more intrusive conflicts of this film is Joe’s desire to live a fulfilled, meaningful life – though his definition of meaningful starts out as being famous for playing jazz and being one of the greats at his craft. Both the cast and crew share a hope that this conflict will lead audiences to see that just by living, life has meaning.
“One of my favorite things about the message this film portrays is that we always see films about pursuing your dream. I hope this film shows people that all lives have merit […] You don’t have to have it all figured out,” said Powers. “One of my favorite characters in the film is Dez the Barber, because Dez the Barber is a guy that is a master at his craft – to the point that Joe was like, ‘Obviously he always wanted to do this.’ And he’s like, ‘Nah, man. I wanted to be a vet. But I’m pretty happy with where I landed. I found other dreams. I found other things that allowed me to find fulfillment.’ I think that, just the idea that everyone sitting in that audience should be able to see their lives represented up there on the screen, that’s something that I really hope for, because I do feel that all lives are valuable. People don’t have more valuable lives based on how famous or how rich they are.”
While that idea seems a bit earnest in the approach, the creatives behind “Soul” hope audiences are open to the emotional and never-ending journey of finding oneself, despite all the bumps and negativity that might happen along the way.
“I hope they take away that their own special brand of uniqueness,they arrived with it. You know, with their personality, their quirks, their gifts, their talents, and that’s an important asset to the world, and to the community, and to the family that’s around you,” said Bassett. “I think [‘Soul’] talks about being focused on your dreams, but maybe sometimes too much focus, or hearing negative chatter from outside can derail you and take you to a dark vortex or space. But I hope they just take away positiveness [sic]. That especially, you’re unique and that you’re destined for this journey. So, live it with gusto, live it with pride, live it with spark and vitality.”
When asked about what message the team hopes that families and children take away from “Soul,” in a year overflowing with challenges and hardships, Docter put it beautifully:
“I think a lot of us grew up with this idea that we need to earn our way into being worthy, and that’s why a lot of times, some of these goals end up being self-defining or self-limiting,” he said. ‘One of the aims of the movie is to say that, you know, just by being alive, we are valued. We are already enough. We all deserve to enjoy what life has to offer. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around.”
Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” is available to stream exclusively on Disney+ starting Dec. 25. To check out our spoiler-free review, click here.