Everybody has a dream. “Soul,” the latest film from Disney’s beloved Pixar Animation Studios, is about a man who refuses to let even death get in the way of achieving his. His name is Joe Gardner, and he’s a middle-aged schoolteacher who wants nothing more than to become a professional jazz musician. It’s a film about the struggles and beauty of life, and the spirit inside of all of us yearning to be fulfilled, this time made literal.
Kemp Powers, the film’s co-writer and director, knows exactly how Gardner feels.
“I was a journalist for 17 years. You’re actually witnessing my second career unfolding. Creative writing was definitely something that I wanted to do for a long time and pursued on nights and weekends, often to the consternation of my journalist compatriots who said how impossible it was to move into (that professionally).
Self-actualization isn’t that simple, of course. While Kemp, who also wrote the acclaimed film “One Night in Miami,” based on his own play, has finally manifested the career he wanted for himself, his co-director Pete Docter is still trying to figure out what his spirit wants, even after winning two Academy Awards for “Up” (2009) and “Inside Out” (2015).
“I felt like this is what I was born to do, animation, and ‘Inside Out’ was, by any mark, a success. And yet, afterwards, I still found myself expecting more. Somehow (I thought) it was going to fix everything in my life, and it didn't. There was a lot of stuff that's still broken in my own inner world. I think that’s really what sparked this film,” says Docter.
Docter spent a lot of time after what could be considered his greatest career success wondering what he was meant to be doing with his life, and if he was doing it right, he says. He may not have figured out all the answers yet, but “Soul” was a way for him to continue exploring, through the fictional lives of his characters.
“I think the thing we're always trying to do in any Pixar film is to say, ‘OK, on one level this is just going to be hopefully fun, funny, something for everybody.’ But that gives a Trojan-horse opportunity to deliver something deeper, and really think about what we’re going to be working on for four or five years,” says Docter, referencing the average amount of time each Pixar film takes to make.
“We are trying to tap into things that we struggle with. Our joys, our successes, our pain, failures, all those things go into these movies,” he continues. “Even though they're about fish, or horses, or bugs, or whatever, they're really about us.”
In “Soul,” Gardner escapes the afterlife and finds himself in the before-life, a place where new souls are being prepared for their life on earth, figuring out their passions and personality before their journey begins.
“(That idea) started with my son,” says Docter. “He’s 23 now, but the instant he was born he already had a personality. Where did that come from? I thought your personality developed through your interaction with the world. And yet, it was pretty clear that we’re all born with a very unique, specific sense of who we are.”
Jamie Foxx, who provides the voice of Joe Gardner, has certainly always known who he is.
“(Joe’s) dream is to one day play with (a jazz legend named) Dorothea Williams. It’s like a basketball player who wants to play in Madison Square Garden. I was born with a similar spark — I came out singing and telling jokes,” says Foxx.
Foxx, unlike Gardner, has been successful for decades in multiple fields, winning both an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray,” as well as two Grammy Awards for the songs “Gold Digger” and Blame It.”
“We cornered him on set and said, ‘Is there anything you can't do — that you're not great at?’” says Docter. “And he said, ‘Bowling.’”
Tina Fey stars opposite Foxx as 22, a soul who doesn’t want to be born. Whereas Gardner knows exactly who he wants to be, 22 has no idea and has given up trying, leading them both on a journey of self-discovery.
“I think the ways in which she’s cynical and the things that she’s scared of are really relatable. Life is scary at times, and life hurts. Everyone has those moments of ‘It’s too much!’” says Fey.
In 2020, nearly everyone was able to relate to that sentiment. After a year filled with so much uncertainty, co-director Kemp hopes that the film, one of 2020’s last major releases, helps people realize that uncertainty is just a part of the journey.
“I don't think anyone, at the beginning of the process, could have predicted the state the world was going to be in, but I'm a big believer that things happen at the time that they're supposed to happen,” says Kemp.