Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a middle school teacher more focused on becoming a jazz musician.
Every musician knows the phrase “suffer for one’s art.” It’s what we often think of as “the artist’s journey,” says Kemp Powers, a writer and co-director on Pixar’s Soul. “For anyone who has a profession in the creative arts, it’s an almost religious obsessiveness you have to have to have success and a career in the arts. At any point, no matter how happy you are doing what you do, it feels like that obsessiveness is detrimental to the rest of your life.”
Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx and shown in EW’s exclusive first look image at the upcoming animated feature, is the epitome of this idea. A middle school teacher and jazz musician living in New York City, he’s someone, Powers continues, “who’s lived his whole life like he was meant to do this one thing [music] to the exclusion of pretty every other thing.”
That’s where Soul, one of two original Pixar feature films premiering in 2020, begins. But, as Pixar movies tend to do, things get existential.
On the surface, Soul strikes similar notes to that of Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017). One journeyed inside the mind of a child to meet the emotions that made her tick, while the other saw a young boy on a musical jaunt through the land of the dead. Soul, also helmed by Inside Out‘s director Pete Docter, sees Joe accidentally dying after getting his dreamed-about job of a lifetime. His soul then ends up at You Seminar, a celestial space where souls are made and given personalities before sent off to human bodies.
“Like Inside Out, we’re taking you to a world where no one’s ever been — well, for a long time,” says producer Dana Murray.
Despite the similarities to past Pixar films, Powers reiterates Murray’s sentiment. “We went in a completely different direction than any of the other films that Pete’s done,” he says. “It’s hard to contain our enthusiasm over how much people are going to be surprised by what they see.”
With his soul at You Seminar, Joe meets 22, a soul who loathes humans and avoids earth. According to Docter, she’s the teenager with the attitude: “You know, it’s all boring and dull. Who cares? It’s all stupid.” Tina Fey, who voices 22, contributed “a little bit of writing” for the character in the script, which Docter simply teases “has been great.” Joe and 22 eventually team up and try to get his soul back to his body on Earth, which involves a journey through cosmic realms.
Blindspotting‘s Daveed Diggs, The Cosby Show‘s Phylicia Rashad, and The Roots drummer Questlove also voice roles in Soul.
“We talked to a lot of folks that represented religious traditions and cultural traditions and [asked], ‘What do you think a soul is?'” says Docter, who now heads Pixar. “All of them said ‘vaporous’ and ‘ethereal’ and ‘non-physical.’ We were like, ‘Great! How do we do this?’ We’re used to toys, cars, things that are much more substantial and easily referenced. This was a huge challenge, but I gotta say, I think the team really put some cool stuff together that’s really indicative of those words but also relatable.”
As Powers puts it, this “soul world” explains aspects of why our real life is the way that it is, “everything from why a person has a certain personality to the ongoing futility of the New York Knicks.” Like Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust, approaching such grand questions about our very existence in “a really fun way” was crucial.
With compositions from Jon Batiste, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor, music naturally became a central part of Joe’s story and his journey. As Docter notes, the Pixar minds wanted a profession the audience could “root for.” They thought about science and chemistry, but nothing felt so naturally pure as a musician’s life. “Yet, on one level, [it’s] somewhat selfish,” Docter adds. “Any artist will have to admit that by doing all this work” — practicing alone for hours on end to achieve some semblance of perfection — “it’s a little bit of a selfish endeavor. Once we landed on music, it really set the trajectory for the rest of the film.”
It’s also a journey that feels endlessly relatable for anyone who defines their lives based on career achievements. For Docter, he sees Joe as a metaphor for filmmaking.
“I’ve been doing animation for 30 years,” he says. “I love it, I can’t get enough of it, and then I also recognize this is not the end-all, be-all of everything.” He recognizes that, without that obsessiveness to write, he wouldn’t be where he is today. But, at the same time, “there are children and life experiences and food and all these other things in the world that you can’t say are less important than animation. I would maybe have said that at certain times in my life.”
Soul, the director continues, is “an exploration of, where should your focus be? What are the things that, at the end of the day, are really going to be the important things that you look back on and go, ‘I spent a worthy amount of my limited time on Earth worrying or focused on that’?”
Perhaps we’ll find our own answers to those questions when the film hits theaters on June 19, 2020.