‘Soul’, Pixar’s latest animated feature, is finally releasing in cinemas on December 25. Initially slated for a June 19 release — and pushed back to November 20 — the film will make history this Christmas weekend, as it becomes Pixar’s first ever project with a lead Black character, a jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx.
The burning question might be why it took Pixar this long to have an African-American protagonist. After all, it’s been 34 years since the studio was founded in 1986.
“Yeah, it’s a good question,” director Pete Docter (‘Up’, ‘Inside Out’, ‘Monsters Inc’) tells Gulf News, over a Zoom call in September. “It’s been way too long, and I don’t know that we really have a good answer. We’re always looking to reflect as much of the world out there as we can, and we’re happy that it’s finally happened — that we are representing a part of the population that just hasn’t had as much voice in our films up to now.”
The film follows middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Foxx), who has the chance of the lifetime to perform jazz on stage. But after a terrible accident, Joe’s soul detaches from his body. Instead of going to the Great Beyond (the afterlife), he’s able to escape to the Great Before — a place where souls (or ‘newbs’) get their personalities, quirks and traits, before they’re sent to Earth. There, Joe has to work with other souls (who are under mentorship programs, led by late historical figures) including 22 (Tina Fey), a soul with a rather grim view of life.
The film features other major names, including Questlove (a drummer in Joe’s band), Phylicia Rashad (Joe’s mum), Angela Bassett (a big-time saxophonist), and Daveed Diggs (Joe’s nemesis).
The music is fully performed by Grammy-nominated John Batiste. Foxx, a musician himself, didn’t perform any of his own material, though he never hesitated to jump behind a piano to serenade the crew.
Docter calls it “shameful” to have waited so long for representation like this.
“We’re so fortunate to have had the chance to have a story that, I think, really embraces a lot of the culture that has not been shared, at least in Pixar films,” he says.
Docter joined Pixar in 1990 at the age of 21, and has been with them for 30 years. In 2018, he was appointed the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation Studios.
“What we’re trying to do, of course, as filmmakers, is to reach out and connect with people and find that sorta common ground of what it is to live life, and so, it’s shameful that it’s taken this long, but we’re excited to have this chance with this film.”
“I was expecting more” after ‘Inside Out’, says Docter...
‘Soul’ took four years to complete, with the final seven weeks happening remotely in lockdown, due to a shelter-in-place order. (They’re working on a documentary about finishing ‘Soul’ during a pandemic.)
Through this project, Docter wanted to explore his own thoughts surrounding life and death — something he’s done many times before, and particularly struck a chord with in films like ‘Up’ and ‘Inside Out’, which tackled the universality of human emotion.
“I think the thing we’re always trying to do in any Pixar film is to say, ‘Okay, on one level this is just gonna be hopefully fun, funny, something for everybody,’” says Docter. “But that gives us, in a way, kind of a Trojan horse — an attempt, an opportunity, rather, to deliver something deeper … We as human beings are trying to tap into things that we struggle with — our joys, our successes, our pain, failures, all those things go into these movies. Even though they’re about fish, or horses, or bugs, or whatever, you know, they’re really about us.”
Docter says he hoped ‘Inside Out’ would fix his life. But when it didn’t, ‘Soul’ came about.
“‘Inside Out’ was, by any mark, really, a success, and yet I still found myself afterwards going — I was, I don’t know, expecting more. Somehow, like it was gonna fix everything in my life, and it didn’t,” he explains.
“There was a lot of stuff that’s still broken in my own inner world, and so I think that’s really what sparked this film, was that sort of moment of, like, ‘Okay, what am I meant to be doing with my life, and am I doing it right?’”
Still, there were a few hiccups along the way. There was the time they thought ‘Soul’ was going to be a heist film, and another when they thought Joe would be an actor, rather than a musician (that didn’t work; too much ego, too little nobility). Thankfully, those scrap-everything moments came early on.
“I think the traditional, ‘Hey, this whole thing’s blowing up, and we wanna quit and slit our wrists,’ that usually comes later, and I don’t think we had quite a moment like that,” says Docter.
Lighting for a wide range of Black skin tones…
Kemp Powers, Pixar’s first Black director-writer, and Docter’s co-director on ‘Soul’, said a lot of the film’s visual brilliance came down to consulting with Bradford Young.
Young, a cinematographer and director of photography, has been behind films such as ‘Arrival’ and ‘Star Wars: A Solo Story’, as well as the Ava DuVernay series ‘When They See Us’.
“This is the first [Pixar] film not just with a Black protagonist, but there’s a whole range of different Black characters with different skin tones, so there was a large learning curve, I think, for our lighting team, and Bradford came in and consulted with them on a number of occasions,” says Powers.
“He has a very unique look to a lot of the films that he shoots. He’s really excellent at lighting Black skin, and particularly using a lot of single source natural lighting. So what I love about the look of ‘Soul’, in the human world, is that it looks so different than any Pixar film that’s come before it.”
And while ‘Soul’ deals with undoubtedly serious topics — chiefly, death — Powers says it would be a disservice to children to avoid such realities.
“Pixar’s one of the few places that treats kids with respect by not trying to overly simplify or dumb things down,” says Powers.
“We do an earlier screening for children, and that’s always really eye-opening ‘cause that’s kind of our stress test. Like, have we been kidding ourselves? Are kids gonna get this at all?” he explains.
“We come out of the screenings, and the parents go, ‘This might be a little bit too complicated,” at which point their child usually explains everything to the parent … That was exactly the case with this, where the kids, very young kids even, got it immediately.”
In a similar vein, Docter says it wasn’t too hard to inject comedy into the film despite its overall themes.
“You might think it was difficult, but there’s actually a pretty rich tradition of comedy about death and fatalism and purposelessness. I think because, when you face it, you either break down and cry or you laugh. We had a good time exploring all that stuff.”
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‘Soul’ releases in UAE cinemas on December 25.