Ever since he started directing and writing for Disney-Pixar, Pete Docter has brought to life some remarkable movies. He started from Monsters Inc. in 2001, followed by Up in 2009 and Inside Out in 2016. These last two movies won him two Oscars for Best Animated Feature. It is easy to see the reason why each being innovative in regard to their genre. Soul, which came out in 2020, places itself in this trend, with a few twists.

In collaboration with co-director Kemp Powers, Docter creates a movie that focuses on characters and their lives (both outside and inside their head). It does so in an intimate yet relatable way. The protagonist, an adult, is both his own hero and antagonist, something that’s not often explored in animation. And simultaneously, it takes time to represent the essence of the African-American community in New York.

Jazz as the quintessence of life

Soul‘s protagonist is Joe Gardner, a middle-aged middle school music teacher. Teaching is not Joe’s biggest aspiration, as his true love is jazz music. He tries to make a living as a musician, but following his mother’s suggestions he falls back on a more secure, less inspiring job (an experience also explored in 2017’s movie Whiplash). Until one day, he lands a gig with famous jazz musician Dorothea Williams.

The animation focuses heavily on the music and on the instruments, especially on Joe’s hands while he plays piano. To make sure that the result was realistic and enjoyable, the animators used footage of real performers; in particular, the jazz composer Jon Batiste was the reference for Joe’s musical sequences. Using the MIDI data from his jazz sessions, the animation team was able to recreate the music realistically.

The song “It’s All Right”, originally performed in 1963 by The Impressions, here covered by Jon Batiste for Soul’s ending credits.

Portraying the black community authentically

When jazz was chosen as Joe’s passion, it came naturally to the writers that he would be part of the African-American community, where jazz was born. Thus, Soul became the first Pixar feature film with an African-American protagonist.

As Disney had gone come under criticism for its portrayal of the Black community in the past, it was important that the portrayal of Joe’s life and community felt authentic and not caricatural. Powers’ contribution to the film, while not limited to the representation of the Black community, was essential. Powers himself felt very close to Joe as a character, and he put many personal experiences into his development. However, the studio also hired several consultants and created a Culture Trust, a group of Black Pixar employees that focused on specific aspects of the movie. This was to ensure that the movie encapsulated the experience of not only one Black person, but of a whole community.

What is the purpose of life?

In an interview by John Boone for ET online, Docter explains how he came up for the theme of the movie. He says:

I feel like there’s so many days — maybe before March — when I would wake up and I’d be like, “All right, what do I have to do before lunch?” And then, “What do I have to do before dinner?” You just kind of march through your day, and then it’s done. That’s a sad way to live. The idea that you’re waking yourself up to life and looking at it anew every day, I think is really exciting. That’s what we try to communicate in this movie.

Pete Docter to John Boone, ET online, December 1, 2020

Soul focuses on the meaning of life. In particular, it chooses to talk about how each one of us perceives the meaning of their life – their purpose, as it were. It instills in the viewer the idea that there is no need to look for a purpose or to rush towards an ultimate goal, which will ultimately prove to be underwhelming.

Regarding this theme, the jazz musician Dorothea Williams tells Joe a story about a fish that wants to see the ocean. This story is similar to and likely inspired by David Foster Wallace‘s This is water, a commencement speech that he wrote in 2006. Giacomo Leopardi also writes something similar in the Zibaldone. In the theory of pleasure, he argues that true pleasure is unachievable. Despite this, humans will always be driven to it.

Soul wasn’t the only movie about “awakening to life” that came out in 2020. Another Round, by director Thomas Vinterberg, explores the same theme in a different setting.

In a society that feels rushed and unsatisfied, Soul is transmitted in a deep, yet simple manner, that makes its way into the viewer’s heart and plants its seeds there. Useful for children to grow into happy adults, and for adults to remember what they became adults for.