The Minnesota roots of Pixar’s new “Soul”

Published 12:56 pm Thursday, December 24, 2020

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By Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio News

The new Pixar movie “Soul,” which opens Christmas Day, is set in New York City, but has roots planted in Minnesota. The movie’s co-directors and co-writers say the film is about focusing on the small things that make life good, and that’s something they found during the time they lived in the state.

Pete Docter is a Pixar veteran. He worked on the “Toy Story” movies, and directed “Up” and “Inside Out.” But after beginning work on a new project about a Black jazz musician in New York, he knew he was coming up short.

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“Because I grew up right there in Minnesota, in Bloomington,” he said. “You know it was a pretty white bread kind of neighborhood. We needed some help to really make sure we captured the experience of what it was like to grow up in Queens, as a person of color, as a musician.”

Which is why playwright and musician Kemp Powers got a call one day. He grew up in Brooklyn, but he began his writing career in Minnesota, working for both City Pages and the Guthrie Theater.

He describes himself as the kind of guy who likes Pixar so much he’ll go to see one of the company’s movies without his kids. So he said yes to working with Pixar without even knowing the story, calling it a once-in-a-career opportunity. When he heard the plot, it sealed the deal.

“I felt like I was the best guy to help tell this story — tell the story of Joe Gardner,” Powers said.

In “Soul” Joe Gardner is a jazz musician who has waited for a long, long time to get his big break. He’s suffered for years paying his dues while working as a middle school band teacher. Then one day, a chance to join a leading jazz quartet on tour falls in his lap.

“Joe Gardner, you got a suit?” the band leader demands. “Get a suit, teach, a good suit. Back here tonight. First show is at 9. Sound check’s at 7. We will see how you do.”

Joe is silent as she walks offstage, and then goes wild: “I just got the gig!”

For a few brief minutes, Joe is on top of the world. And then he falls down an open manhole and starts on his way to the afterlife.

He’s not ready, but his escape plan to get back for the show goes awry. After a wrong turn and a case of mistaken identity, he ends up as the latest in a series of mentors for new soul called “22” who is remarkably unwilling to go to Earth, despite the advice from past teachers.

“Such notable mentors as Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa,” intones one of the celestial teaching staff.

“I made her cry,” the new soul boasts.

“Ignore that,” says the teacher.

The unlikely pair set off on a series of adventures. Like other Pixar films, “Soul” has slapstick comedy for youngsters and some philosophical depth for grownups. But Docter says it’s not a story about death. The idea sprang from wondering about how he was living his own life.

“Could I be doing more? Am I living correctly?” he said. “And so it’s an investigation in to kind of how to live and what makes life worth it.”

And Docter says the answer to that question is the little things we sometimes take for granted.

“Like tasting a piece of pizza, or listening to the breeze in the tree leaves,” Docter says, admitting it all sounds hokey. “But it’s absolutely true.”

And, particularly right now.

“With the pandemic, we suddenly are aware of all these things we didn’t really value. Now [that] we don’t have them anymore they become more important,” he said.

Such as a trip to the movie theater for the opening of an animated holiday blockbuster. “Soul” is available exclusively on the Disney+ cable channel.

Both Docter and Powers see a little Minnesota in “Soul.” Powers points to the weather and the gaps between the cold winter and the bug-plagued summer.

“That sweet spot in the autumn and that sweet spot in the spring of about four weeks when its the most beautiful place in the world,” Powers said.

And for Docter, he points to the bittersweet feeling of the “Peanuts” strips by St. Paul native Charles Shulz.

“It’s got the comedy. It’s got a lot of funny goofy stuff,” he said. “But it’s also got some real poignant pain in there as well, which I think brings a richness to it.”

When “Soul” opens Christmas Day it’s going to be an unusually big day for Powers. His movie adaptation of his own play “One Night in Miami” opens on the exact same date. The day could be one of the bigger things in his life.