Pete Docter’s life has a way of making its way on screen. The Minnesota native and chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios regularly draws from his own experiences, even if the results aren’t always as personal as his latest work, “Soul,” which he co-wrote and -directed. (It debuts on Disney+ in December after a couple of delayed attempts to open in theaters.) Like him, the movie’s music-teacher protagonist reaches middle age, having achieved some but not all of the things he hoped to, and wonders if he took the right path.
“Soul” joins “Toy Story” (which reaches back to the flip books and animated movies Docter made when he was a student at Nine Mile Elementary School), “Up” (its unlikely friendship was inspired by a fleeting childhood memory) and “Inside Out” (suggested by his nostalgia for being the parent of small children) in telling the Docter story, one animated frame at a time. That story began in Bloomington, where Docter, 52, the son of educators Dave and Rita Docter, graduated from Kennedy High School. After a year at the University of Minnesota, he transferred to California Institute of the Arts, which has produced several generations of top cartoonists, and became the third animator hired by then-new Pixar in 1990. Quickly becoming part of the company’s “Brain Trust,” the man who described himself to this paper as “a geeky kid who likes to draw cartoons” has had a hand in every movie the studio made.
Interviewed via Zoom from his tree house office attached to the California home where he and his wife, Amanda, raised kids Elie and Nick, Docter talked about turning his life into art.
It takes forever to make an animated film and “Soul” ended up getting delayed a couple of times, most recently moving from summer to streaming as a result of many theaters being closed during the pandemic. Does it feel great to have it finally released?
We’ve spent 4 ½ years working on this film so to finally be able to talk about it, the dam is bursting!
All of your work has been autobiographical but it sounds like this one really hit close to home.
Even as a kid I loved animation. I wanted to be an animator my whole life. While my friends were playing soccer or going on dates I was actually in my room, making animated cartoons. I was lucky to start working at Pixar in 1990 and I felt like making animated films was what I was born to do, and yet there are some days I find myself wondering, “Gee, really? Cartoons? Is that what I was supposed to do in my limited days?”
This is something you’ve been thinking about for a while?
“Inside Out” [the Oscar-winning 2015 blockbuster that journeyed inside the brain of an adolescent girl, inspired by Docter’s daughter] was by any mark really a success and yet I still found myself afterward going, “I was expecting more.” Somehow, it was going to fix everything in my life. And it didn’t. There is a lot of stuff broken in my inner world and I think that was what sparked this film: “OK. What am I meant to be doing with my life and am I doing it right?” I don’t know that there is any right answer but we were excited in the film to look at that and talk about it. And I don’t want to give away the ending because — it might talk about that!
You’ve been working on the “Soul” story for years, but it feels timely now.
Once COVID happened, and George Floyd, I feel like those and other events make it speak even louder. I don’t know if that’s egotistical to say, and I don’t, obviously, take credit for life-changing events in the world, but it does seem to be hitting at a right, and good, time. Or a bad time. However you want to see it.
There’s risk involved in releasing movies, in terms of not knowing how many theaters will be open, whether people will go or whether expensive movies can make money. How do you grapple with that?
I still believe people want to see themselves up on the screen, their shared struggles, that they’re not alone, which is an easy thing to feel, especially now. There are days you don’t see anyone else and you think, “Am I the only one out here? Am I the only one going through this?” So, is it risky? I don’t know if I really think of it that way. I think of it as: This is what we’re meant to be doing. I don’t want to sound evangelical about that but that’s what we’ve based our successes on in the past and it’s what we look for in our present and future.
Those are fairly adult themes, as were, for instance the parenting issues in “Finding Nemo” and the career crises of “Ratatouille.” Is it ever worrisome that Pixar movies, intended for kids, are so focused on adult dilemmas?
It’s always a bit of a concern. However, we’ve gotten through enough of these: An old man whose wife dies [in “Up”]? That worked out. So I’ve stopped questioning that too much. We’re not making these just for ourselves, but we start with ourselves and then invite the kids in.
Autobiography aside, one aspect of “Soul” that’s bound to get a lot of attention is that its main character is a Black man, a first for Pixar (the film is co-written and -directed by Kemp Powers, who is Black and whose life also informed the character, a teacher who longs for a jazz career). What took so long?
We’re so fortunate to have the chance to have a story that embraces a lot of the culture that has not been shared in Pixar films. What we’re trying to do as filmmakers is reach out and connect with people, find that common ground in what it is to live life. It’s shameful that it’s taken this long.
You come from a musical family (his folks taught music, his two sisters are musicians) but gravitated to art. Is that still where you feel most “in the zone”?
For me, it’s drawing and animating. I recall several times in my life where I’d be just working and just everything disappears, and then you sorta come to, and you’re like, “Oh, man. It’s, like, four hours later.”
Looking at your body of work, there are similarities, especially between “Inside Out,” largely set in a girl’s brain, and “Soul,” partly set inside a person’s soul. Were you worried about repeating yourself?
The thing we’re always trying to do in any Pixar film is to say, “OK, on one level this is just gonna be hopefully fun, funny, something for everybody.” But that gives us, in a way, kind of a Trojan horse, an attempt, or an opportunity rather, to deliver something deeper. We’re going to be working on this thing for four or five years. It better engage us in ways that make us excited, so as human beings we do tap into some of the things we struggle with. Even though [the movies are] about fish or horses or bugs, they’re all really about us.