Pete Docter often likes to tackle the Big Questions in his Pixar movies, including how to cope with life after loss in "Up," and how to grapple with the essential stuff that makes up us, as imagined in "Inside Out."
For his new film, "Soul," which was released Dec. 25 on Disney Plus, the Oscar-winning director and Pixar chief has returned to envisioning fantasy worlds, now to address such questions as: What is our passion, and what is our purpose? "Soul's" hero seeks answers after his existence is suddenly turned upside down - a feeling that many filmgoers can relate to in 2020. But for Docter, the seed began years ago, from within.
"It was really a personal story for me," Docter says on a Zoom call, "feeling this sense of existential midlife crisis: What am I doing with my time on earth?"
"Soul" continues Pixar's string of recent films that headily delve into realms beyond our own, including 2017's "Coco" and this year's "Onward," which both center on connecting with relatives who have slipped our mortal coil.
To dramatize an adventure sprung from such angst, Docter and his fellow filmmakers, including writer Mike Jones and writer/co-director Kemp Powers, decided to send their lead character to a space beyond Earth, removing all that is familiar.
In "Soul," Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a 45-year-old band teacher and aspiring professional jazz pianist. After Joe has an accident on a bustling New York street, he finds himself mentoring a soul in training (Tina Fey) in a wispy and trippy space where spirits arrive and depart in high volume, like some otherworldly O'Hare.
Docter says the grand visual challenge became: "How do you make a world that doesn't exist anywhere?" And then, how do animators even populate a supernatural world with characters that cannot appear to be as solid and corporal as Earthbound creatures?
"We developed new technology to handle the volumetric fog of the souls," Docter says of the fuzzy and translucent beings floating along in the film's so-called Great Before and Great Beyond. Pixar also created digital line work to help define the ethereal characters - a first for the studio.
The luscious art works in service to story, and "Soul" encourages viewers to ponder - partly through the metaphor of jazz - what moments do you appreciate in the improvisational acts of daily life, and what connections do you create that matter?
"Soul" urges viewers to think about living purposefully, producer Dana Murray says, "whether it's about a piece of pizza or to put that phone down."
Through one lens, Joe Gardner's sudden loss of his daily rituals reflects what people have experienced during the pandemic. How do we treasure time in a surreal 2020, and how do we stay alert to the mindful moments?
"I'm aware daily of how much I miss," Docter says. "The idea of just stopping and valuing what you have, of feeling the breeze in your face - that's what life is about."
"I hope that the film kind of allows people to wake up a little bit," Docter notes, "and recognize the amazing things and the gifts that they have all around them."
So did Docter gain any midlife clarity through the making of this movie?
"I want to do something that is meaningful," the director says, "that makes the world a richer place than it was before this movie."