In the 30 years that Pixar has been making and releasing short films, the renowned studio has told brief, dialogue-free stories about birds, bicycles, and even a pair of singing volcanoes looking for love. But the latest tale, which premiered in theaters before The Good Dinosaur, tells Pixar’s most personal story yet: the story of director Sanjay Patel, who grew up superhero-obsessed and struggling to connect with his father’s religious heritage.
EW has an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Sanjay’s Super Team, and we spoke to Patel and producer Nicole Grindle about how Pixar brought Patel’s childhood to life in a short that’s been hailed for both its storytelling and its gorgeous visuals.
Sanjay’s Super Team follows a young boy who’d rather spend his free time daydreaming about his favorite cartoons than praying with his father every day, and the two repeatedly clash, especially since Sanjay’s TV and his father’s shrine are only a few feet away from each other. It’s only after Sanjay reimagines his father’s deities as the superheroes he idolizes that the two are able to find some common ground. Even though it’s a story that’s specific to Patel’s childhood, it raises universal questions about family and heritage, tugging on the heartstrings in a way that only Pixar can.
“I’m totally relieved, man,” Patel says about the response, laughing. “Growing up, I didn’t feel like there was value in what me and my dad did every morning. It just felt like watching paint dry. And so it’s really gratifying to know that we were able to get through to people and touch them with this story.”
“I always felt that it resonated for a lot of people,” Grindle says. “A lot of people working on the crew really responded to the story — both people who came from immigrant backgrounds and people who didn’t. That intergenerational experience is something that I think is universal.”
As directors go, Patel is a reluctant one. A longtime Pixar animator, he worked on some of the studio’s biggest hits, from Monsters, Inc. to The Incredibles. But in his free time, he wrote and illustrated a series of books inspired by Hindu mythology. His Pixar colleagues fell in love with his gorgeous, intricate illustrations, and the studio soon approached him to ask if he’d be interested in telling some of these stories in the form of a short film. He was initially unsure about taking the reins, especially when it meant opening up about his own story, but after both Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter and his own father encouraged him to take the leap, he signed on.
The entire seven-minute short took almost three years to finish, and although the story always centered on a young boy ignoring his roots, his father wasn’t originally part of the story. It was only after Patel showed Lasseter a drawing of himself as a child, watching TV, while his dad worshipped at his shrine in the same room, that Lasseter encouraged him to focus on that relationship, even suggesting that Patel include real-life photos of him and his dad.
Not only is this one of Pixar’s most personal stories ever, but it’s the first Pixar film to feature a person of color as a protagonist. Lasseter spoke earlier this year about how one of Pixar’s goals is to bring more female characters and people of color to screen, and Grindle says that starts with encouraging filmmakers to tell their own personal stories.
“I think we hope that [Sanjay’s Super Team] will just inspire other people to tell their personal stories that come from different cultural backgrounds,” says Grindle. “A studio like Pixar has such a broad reach that there’ll be a lot of people out there who are going to see this film and think. People who didn’t think their stories mattered will now have an opportunity, I think, to put them out there.”
As for Patel, he says that he’s most excited for his nieces and nephews (who are obsessed with the short and have their own miniature stuffed Sanjays) to grow up with popular characters that look like them. While he himself didn’t think all that much about representation as a kid, he remembers feeling like an outsider because he never saw himself depicted in the media he loved.
“I wouldn’t have said it was important [to me] growing up, just because I think that stuff is really hard to admit and to talk about openly, especially when you’re younger,” Patel says. “It’s really subtle. It’s really subconscious. All I did feel growing up was that I just wanted to fit in and be like the people on TV who are normal and happy. I never really saw many depictions of people from my community, and when I did, it wasn’t very flattering. It was kind of a butt of a joke. And so it actually felt a bit dangerous to inhabit my own identity, which is so bad. And so I’m really happy that we got to tell this story and really show off a character that hopefully people will identify with that isn’t the butt of a joke — somebody who’s sensitively portrayed and that has some sort of depth. And he’s the hero of the short.”
And as for what Patel’s father thinks about seeing himself portrayed on the big screen? Patel wasn’t sure how his dad would react to the finished product, as he had never even seen a Pixar film before. In fact, the last movie he saw was The Sound of Music, decades ago.
“There’s so much that’s going on in the short, including his and [my] own experience being reflected back to him,” Patel says. “I was kind of afraid it was going to be just too much to have him kind of take in. [But] he was great. He understood exactly what we were going for straight away. He said the story was about a father and son who kind of look into each other’s eyes and figure out a way to compromise, and I just thought that was really beautiful. He really started breaking down. I hope it’s a cool thing for him. I think it is.”