Critics often reflect on the evolution of a filmmaker’s career. But animation directors are not often considered for those reflections. Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese deserve our attention and analysis, but that same attention should be reserved for animation directors such as Hayao Miyazaki and Pete Docter. Miyazaki is known well amongst Japanese animation fans, but Docter’s name is, to some, unfamiliar.
While he may not be a household name, you’ll undoubtedly recognize the films he has directed: “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Inside Out” and most recently, “Soul.” These four Pixar films are all beloved for different reasons and will continue to find audiences thanks to Docter’s brilliant writing and direction.
With “Monsters, Inc.,” Docter proved he was talented enough to direct on his own after learning from other Pixar directors and animators. In this comic adventure, Docter showcased an appreciation for the balance between drama and humor. He wrote delightfully funny lines that rolled off the tongues of talent like John Goodman and Billy Crystal. Yet he also proved with “Monsters, Inc.” that any creature could be humanized and emotionally grow throughout a film.
Docter took his understanding of human emotion to the next level with his second feature, “Up.” No one will soon forget the devastating silent flashback between his characters Carl and Ellie as they traverse life’s greatest joys and challenges. But Docter again never lost sight of his core audience: children. Opposite poignant heartbreak was a rip-roaring adventure with dogs in bi-planes and a colorful snipe.
Color dominated Docter’s next film as he explored the complicated but buoyant world of a young girl’s mind. He also managed to top his previous two films’ emotional resonance with a devastating goodbye to an absurd imaginary friend and a powerful reunion of an emotionally lost girl and her family. With “Inside Out,” Docter proved he had more to say with animation. He wanted to tell audiences that they weren’t alone.
He followed “Inside Out” with “Soul,” which is Docter’s most impressive film to date. The animation in both the real-world and the ethereal plane is enchanting. Every detail has been considered, and their work proves why Docter’s company, Pixar, is the best in the business. The movie also features an impressive international cast of voice talent, including Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton and Rachel House.
I only hope that Disney never releases another Pixar movie on Disney+ exclusively. I understand that the studio made that decision because countless movie theaters are still shut down due to the pandemic, but Pixar movies are always worthy of the big screen. The majesty of the animation and storytelling is simply too big for a small screen.
In “Soul,” Foxx stars as Joe, a band teacher who believes he is destined for more. But his more is cut short when he dies unexpectedly. His death then opens up a new experience when he stumbles into a role as a mentor for a hopeless soul named 22 (Fey). With his companion, Joe will discover that there is more to life than chasing a dream.
I thought Docter’s message in “Soul” was relatable because, like Joe, I’m a dream chaser who doesn’t always catch the dream. I have countless unfinished screenplays, film and TV projects, and novels noodling about in my brain. Joe, on the other hand, aspires to become a star musician. And during the film, he learns to acknowledge his accomplishments and influence.
At first, I thought this was an odd message from Docter because he’s such an accomplished filmmaker. Then on further reflection, I realized he, too, has been a dream chaser whose influence isn’t always appreciated. As he grows with the company (Docter is now chief creative officer of Pixar), he acknowledges with “Soul” the importance of his role as a mentor to new animators and directors.
However, his reach extends past the offices of Pixar because he has helped many children accept their fears, cope with grief, understand their complicated minds, and appreciate the gift they are to the people around them. For that reason, Docter is one of the most exciting talents in animation, and his new film is every bit as important as the filmmaker who made it.