The Man Behind Pixar’s Deepest Explorations

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There’s a moment late in the new Pixar movie Soul when Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist, finally performs on stage, realizing a dream he drifted away from for a teaching job in the dim catacombs of the New York City school system. The gig, with saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett) and her quartet, is every bit as transcendent as he’d imagined it would be—perhaps literally, in that we’ve already seen his music exalt him to the astral plane. After the show, when everyone has filed out into the night, Joe turns to Dorothea and asks, “So … uh ... what happens next?”

“We come back tomorrow night and do it all again,” she replies.

To say Soul has been building to this small moment understates the vast celestial architecture that makes it possible. By this point, we have learned that the souls of the dead are set on an escalator to the heavens. We’ve met the persnickety bean counter who keeps track of them all on his abacus—or, barring that, in a filing system that would not seem out of place in the bureaucratic hell of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. We’ve witnessed how new beings are shepherded through a mentorship system via which personality aspects are acquired like merit badges in places like “Excitable Pavilion” and “The Hall of Everything,” before they get “Earth Pass” that allows them to be jettisoned to the maternity ward. We’ve discovered the wasteland of lost souls and the sign-twirling hippie who patrols it in a pirate ship blaring Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

And so the revelation for Joe, and for us, after discovering how the entire mechanism of life and death operates, is that your dream, should you be lucky enough to achieve it, will soon turn into a job. To believe that performing every night with the Dorothea Williams Quartet will lead to some deeper sense of fulfillment and purpose is a trap that’s taken Joe his entire life (and death) to fall into, much like the open manhole he steps in. Even if Soul is working toward better news about life’s truer and more omnipresent gifts, it’s a sobering point for dream-chasers of all ages, especially in the context of a happy-making Pixar animated movie. And it’s aimed at adults, at least as much as it’s aimed at children.

Such is the particular magic of Pete Docter, who has had a hand in nearly every Pixar production since the original Toy Story, but is credited as the director for four of them: Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out, and Soul. Trying to identify a single artistic voice in an apparatus like Pixar is tricky, given the consistency of the house style and the creative brain trust that fusses over every project, down to the last pixel. But Docter has emerged as the finest in the rotation, with a Charlie Kaufman–like knack for using elaborate metaphysical conceits to express profound truths about human desires and frailties and dimension. Just as Kaufman sends Jim Carrey scurrying through his own medically scrubbed memories to argue for the value of failed relationships in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Docter uses a film like Inside Out to argue for the value of sadness by imagining personified emotions operating a control panel inside an 11-year-old’s head.

The prevailing themes of Docter’s work are development and growth, with the worlds of each film functioning like an apparatus for its characters to understand themselves—and one another—a little bit better. It’s not for nothing that his films tend to be the most emotionally gratifying in the Pixar line, because their whimsy is always checked by real, often bittersweet sentiment. He’s probably wrung more tears out of audiences than any other director in Pixar’s rotation—whenever people talk about one of the studio’s films being made more for adults than for children, they’re most likely referring to something of his. Knowing it’s OK for a preadolescent to feel unhappy sometimes may not be a big scoop for preadolescents, for example, but it’s a major shift for parents used to managing their kids’ emotions.

Of the four films Docter has directed, Monsters, Inc. seems less personal on its face, perhaps because it’s the only one that doesn’t put a human being at its center. But Docter had just become a parent when Monsters, Inc. was made, and the film could be read as him coming to terms with the chaos and possibility that a toddler brings to a neatly ordered world. In the city of Monstropolis, residents rely on a power company that harnesses the screams of scared children for energy, which is a cute way of explaining why monsters are always lurking in the closet. The CEO of the scream factory, Henry J. Waternoose III, warns his “scarers” that “nothing is more toxic or deadly than a human child,” and it takes a babbling imposter named “Boo” to convince two monsters, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (voiced by John Goodman), otherwise.

Once Boo enters the picture, the odd-couple friendship between Mike and Sully turns into a manic form of surrogate parenthood, as their terror gives way to an instinct to protect their young charge. The intrigue within Monsters, Inc. eventually leads to the sort of zany Rube Goldberg finale that was a Pixar signature from the beginning, and Docter is just as adept at handling big sequences like that as he is the emotional beats or the tiny jokes. (Mike actually saying “Hello” when the villain asks him to “say ‘Hello’ to the scream extractor” is particularly inspired.) But the heart of the film is not just about coming to terms with the toxic and deadly threat of parenthood, but tossing away your assumptions about it, too. Of course the laughter of children turns out to be more potent than screams.

The first 11 minutes of Docter’s Up are rightly celebrated as one of the most beautiful stretches in Pixar’s entire filmography, comparable only to the wordless majesty that opens WALL-E, which had been released the year before. Within one decades-spanning montage, we witness the deferred dreams and heartbreaks of Carl and Ellie, a couple of adventurers who long to travel to the hidden idyll of Paradise Falls in South America but are met with compromises and setbacks, including infertility. (The way the montage follows an image of Carl and Ellie setting up a nursery with a doctor giving them the bad news is extraordinarily audacious in the context of a mainstream animated movie.) By the time Up actually begins, Ellie is gone and Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is a lonely, dyspeptic old man clinging to his home, the one thing they were able to create together.

Of course, Up gives Carl a late-in-life opportunity to visit Paradise Falls by turning his house into a makeshift airship, held aloft by the colorful helium balloons he once hawked as a salesman. It also gives him the child he never had, a misfit young Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), who has a sash full of badges but zero experience in the actual wilderness. The touching lesson of Up is that life’s adventures don’t always take the form you might have expected or planned, which is something Ellie understood better than Carl, who needs to drift all the way to Paradise Falls to realize the trip wasn’t necessary. The film now seems like a companion piece to Soul: Both are about characters who come to understand that achieving a long-held dream is not actually the point of being alive.

Though Docter’s follow-up, Inside Out, taps into the mind of a character whose age is more in line with Pixar’s target audience, it’s arguably even more directed at adults than Up, which at least has funny talking dogs and thrilling aerial sequences that recall Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. While children may see themselves in Riley, an 11-year-old shaken by a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, the film is actually about Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the most dominant of the emotions that control Riley’s actions, and a stand-in for parents who are intent on keeping their kids happy. Inside Out goes beyond the moment-to-moment impulses of Riley’s brain to explore other abstract ideas, like the role memory plays in determining who we are and the fragility of mental health (suggested by islands that hang over a precipice).

For much of Inside Out, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) is an annoying burden to Joy, which speaks to parents who become experts at rallying their children out of a funk. Even the sadness that can’t be chased away easily, like Riley missing her friends or having a rough first day at school, require an attitude adjustment, a little of the irrational optimism that Joy brings to her every waking moment. What parents are slow to accept is that children will grow into complex emotional beings, and that Sadness and Joy will become necessary partners, coloring a more sophisticated response to the world. Inside Out may follow Riley through this transitional period in her life, but it’s not a film about her. It’s about fathers and mothers learning that kids develop beyond their parents’ ability to manage them; that may be the goal of parenthood, but it’s painful all the same.

Docter is currently the chief creative officer of Pixar, replacing John Lasseter, who stepped down in 2018 following multiple accounts of sexual misconduct. Over 25 years, Docter has gone from one of the company’s foundational voices to its defining voice, an evolution that has resulted in films that feel more personal and more inwardly directed. Docter has been upfront about his Christianity, which may not be explicitly present in his work, but might explain his desire to use animation to tackle big-picture questions about the meaning of life and how best people can navigate their mortality. Despite the tearjerking melancholy that often underscores his films, he’s an unwavering optimist about human nature and our capacity to better ourselves.

Though Soul finds Docter treating the afterlife as another one of his byzantine systems, full of little rules and mechanisms for keeping the universe humming like a car engine, it’s also more down-to-earth than any of his films to date. To the extent that Up and Inside Out address their urban setting, it’s to show them as hostile and alienating, the types of places where homes are noisily leveled and pizza is ruined by broccoli. Soul, on the other hand, is a overwhelming sensory tribute to New York City, but a man like Joe Gardner needs death—and his mentorship of 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), the most jaded soul in history—to see the city in a new light.

Docter depicts New York as a paradise of by-the-slice pizzerias, subway buskers, and neighborhood barber shops, the sorts of out-and-about communal pleasures that the pandemic has rendered painfully bittersweet. And yet the fact that we’ve been denied that New York for the better part of the year gives Soul a kind of power that Docter could not have anticipated. Joe runs down heaven’s escalator because he wants desperately to get back to his former life, which is finally coming to professional fruition. What he doesn’t know about himself is that the gig doesn’t matter. What matters are all the things that he took for granted. The best hope for all of us in 2021 is to know, too, what it feels like to come back from the dead.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.

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