There's one scene in the animated "Soul" that literally has director Pete Docter's imprint all over it.
The latest from Pixar is already showing up on Oscar prediction sites as a best picture contender. It's a comedy/drama about middle school band teacher Joe, who is dogged by a feeling that his real calling is playing in a jazz combo. "Soul" lets Joe see what that might be like, and in the final close-up, a complex sequence of emotions plays across his face as he comes to a realization about his purpose in life. No dialogue is spoken but it appears that he understands himself for the first time.
"The animator on that shot, she did an amazing job but it was probably the only draw-over I did on the movie. By that I mean, there's a [tablet] where you can draw over the top to tailor things, make little subtle tweaks. Which I did, because I had a very specific idea what I was looking for," said Docter, 52, the Bloomington native who's also Pixar's chief creative officer (a title he's had for two years but still struggles to recall).
That "specific idea" was rooted in personal things: Docter's occasional bouts with impostor syndrome, a music-filled Minnesota childhood and the unsettling feeling that hit him after he won an Oscar for "Inside Out" in 2016. Trying to figure out why snagging his industry's highest honor didn't make him feel great gave him the idea for "Soul," which starts streaming on Disney Plus on Christmas Day.
"It's mind-blowing and hugely crazy, but it didn't change my life or make everything fall into place in a satisfying way," Docter said of the Oscar. "So this film was really a chance to say, 'Well, what is life all about?' It's not just achieving your goals and following your passions. I'm not saying it's not at all about that but I don't think that's the be-all, end-all."
That notion is what attracted Tina Fey to the script. She supplies the voice of 22, a figure in a soul netherworld whom Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) encounters after an accident leaves him stranded between life and death. Much like the angel Clarence helped George Bailey see the beauty of the everyday in "It's a Wonderful Life," 22 accompanies Joe back to New York, where he tries to help her (and himself) understand what's great about being alive.
Although the movie has been in the making for several years, Fey thinks "Soul" arrives at the perfect moment.
"The film does a really interesting thing where they go a step beyond saying you've got to find your passion in life. They also bring up the idea that an all-consuming passion can take over your life," said Fey. "We're taking stock [right now] of what it means to have had a good year, to feel successful in your life. It often means taking small joys where you can find them and being present with the people you love."
As Docter and others at Pixar were inventing characters for "Soul," they watched a video of musician Herbie Hancock teaching a class and were inspired by how he spoke about improvising. It struck them that making up music as you go along is a good metaphor for navigating life. Suddenly, they knew their hero would be a jazz pianist, the first Black protagonist in Pixar's 34-year history.
"One of our consultants called jazz 'Black improvisational music' and we realized, 'Oh, this character has to be from that culture that brought us this great American art form," said Docter, who hired playwright Kemp Powers ("One Night in Miami") to help give "Soul's" hero his soul.
with Docter, said that had to do with capturing the details that would be important to Joe, down to something Powers had in common with the fictitious character when both were on the verge of job interviews.
"I was like, he also needs a haircut, right? And someone said, well, the haircut isn't as important as the suit. And I was like, 'I wouldn't have even come up to Pixar for the interview if I couldn't have got lined up. So, I'm gonna disagree and say that that haircut is every bit as important,' " recalled Powers.
A barbershop scene, which Docter said was rewritten 45 times, is crucial to "Soul" because the barber Dez, who planned to be a veterinarian, helps Joe see that it may take a while for our paths to become clear.
We've got the jazz
Jazz was a familiar idiom for Docter to explore. He grew up in a musical family — his parents Dave and Rita are music educators and both of his sisters are classical musicians. Rita recently sent Pete a clipping from the Star Tribune, a story about pianist Butch Thompson that jogged musical memories from his childhood.
"I was talking to my dad the other day. When I was a kid, he took me to some place — I thought it was in Mankato but he said it was in St. Paul, near the river [possibly Hall Brothers Emporium of Jazz in Mendota]. There was a jazz club and we heard Milt Hinton play, I know we heard Butch Thompson and a bunch of local guys," said Docter.
Another similarity between Joe and Pete is, in a parallel universe, Docter might have become a musician.
"I'm the black sheep of the family," joked Docter, his family's best filmmaker but worst musician. "I never practice so I sound awful. I played violin for nine years and I play string bass. And there's a group at work, we get together and play and that's a great stress reliever and a joy. The great thing about bass is you can fake your way through stuff as long as you're in rhythm. If you play a few wrong notes, it's not the end of the world."
Docter's mentors, including at the Bajus-Jones Film Corp. in Edina and at Walt Disney Studios, helped steer him toward animation, and even if he still wonders about other roads he could have taken, that feels right to him. If he has learned anything from making "Soul," it's that work isn't the key to happiness.
"Obviously, we need to earn our way in life, somehow, and prove ourselves worthy of someone's love or respect. But one of the aims of this movie is to say that just by being alive, we all have value. We all deserve to enjoy whatever we have," Docter said, summarizing what Joe learns. "We're all kind of striving but you can stop and admire the sunset or the leaves or whatever. That's a real, honest joy of life."
That's not a bad way of describing the look on Joe's face in the scene that Docter redrew. The hope is that audiences will join Joe in realizing that it's swell to achieve goals, but the more important things are deep in our souls.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367