What 'Soul' Says About the Future of Pixar

In the age of sequels, the Disney-owned studio will have two original films out in 2020.

Pixar’s having a pretty great month, with the arrival of the entertaining new film Toy Story 4 in theaters this Friday. And a few weeks ago, it unveiled a teaser trailer for their upcoming original film Onward, featuring the voices of Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer. On Wednesday, the studio managed to surprise people even further with the unexpected announcement of its second original film for 2020, opening a year from today. That film, Soul, is an encouraging sign of things to come for more than one reason.

The details surrounding Soul are deliberately scant — before today, all that was known was that Pixar was apparently releasing an original film on this date in 2020. (Currently, the only dates that Pixar has planted its metaphorical flag on are for original releases, with Toy Story 4 supposedly their final sequel for the time being. This was echoed by that fourquel’s producer, Mark Nielsen, in comments to The Hollywood Reporter last month.) The press release for Soul offers just a brief, vague logline: “Ever wonder where your passion, your dreams and your interests come from? What is it that makes you ... YOU?” It describes “a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions,” before revealing the most exciting part of the announcement: Soul is directed by one of the studio’s stalwarts, Pete Docter.

Docter, who now serves as the chief creative officer for Pixar Animation Studios after John Lasseter stepped down amid scandal at the end of 2018, has been part of the Emeryville-based studio since before the original Toy Story was released in the fall of 1995. Hired straight out of college as the tenth employee at the fledgling computer-animation studio, Docter has been involved in many of the studio’s most important films, from Toy Story (on which he’s credited as a story writer) to Toy Story 4, serving as a member of the Pixar brain trust. And with Soul, he’ll be directing his fourth animated feature, second only to Lasseter among the studio’s filmmakers.

What’s more, Docter’s record of films so far is peerless, and arguably the best of any of the directors from Pixar. (Both Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird have directed three features of their own; in each man’s case, they returned to Pixar after directing live-action fare, following those up with sequels to some of their best-loved animated works: Finding Dory and Incredibles 2. Those follow-ups are both entertaining, but not up to par with their predecessors.) Only one of Docter’s films has served as a springboard for a follow-up, his debut feature Monsters, Inc. The 2013 prequel Monsters University, which is better than you might remember, was helmed by Onward director Dan Scanlon; Docter was knee-deep in production of his most recent film, the exemplary Inside Out.

That 2015 adventure, in which we meet five personified emotions inside the mind of a preteen girl moving across the country with her parents, could very well signal part of what Soul ends up being about. The notion of the film exploring what “makes you ... YOU” is akin to the idea of a movie exploring how our emotions guide our actions, from our joyous days as toddlers to the more stressful period of being adults. The logline is also intriguing because it implies we’ll get another first, of Pixar exploring New York City even briefly. Though many of the studio’s films take place in a real location — San Francisco figures heavily in Inside Out, and other locales like Scotland, the Himalayas, and Mexico have been key to other Pixar features — New York’s never been part of their repertoire.

Really, all of this can be boiled into the chief reason why it’s encouraging to see information about Pixar’s new film and about Pete Docter’s presence as its director: Pixar excels at original films. Even in an era full of franchises and intellectual property, Pixar has almost always found success both creatively and financially with original fare. (The only Pixar film to not hit even mild success at the box office was the 2015 film The Good Dinosaur, and even that grossed $125 million domestically.) Though they’ve made more sequels than originals of late, there’s no reason to assume that the studio can’t keep hitting the bulls’-eye with Onward and Soul. In a way, Pixar itself is enough of an established brand that they exist as a unique kind of franchise. We know to expect the unexpected with the studio; since they deliver on their promise every time, it’s often more than enough to risk buying a ticket.

Soul comes out a year from now, and there’s little doubt that we’re going to learn a great deal more about the project in the months to come. With the D23 Expo coming up in August, it’s safe to assume whatever Pixar presents at the event will include at least some detail, potentially including casting or a slightly less vague premise. For now, though, any fan of the studio should be emboldened by the presence of one of its longest-tenured and most talented filmmakers at the helm, and the very fact that Pixar is going back to originals. (If the current release calendar sticks, they’ll have two original films to release in 2022 as well.) The studio’s bread and butter, for a long time, has been distinctive and fresh stories, and Soul is proof that they’re going back to what worked for so long in the new decade.