How to sell your Soul: Pixar rediscovers its mojo in a midlife crisis
‘Inside Out’ gave its director the Oscar hit he’d always dreamt of – and an existential crisis
A month after the release of Inside Out, Pete Docter arrived back at Pixar Animation Studios with a plan in mind for his next film. The director’s two children had reached their late teens, and he had found himself in what he calls a “looking-back phase” - poring over baby pictures, and reminiscing about watching the first sparks of their personalities emerge. His next film, he thought, would follow two of those sparks: a pair of souls-in-training who are having a pre-existential crisis, but decide to face their fraught and uncertain lives on Earth side by side.
This was a strong idea with one obvious drawback; it felt an awful lot like Inside Out, in which Joy and Sadness - two emotions inside the head of an 11-year-old girl - learn to accept their differences and appreciate each other’s worth.
It was 2015, halfway through a decade at Pixar in which sequels had outnumbered original films by almost two to one. That creative change of direction had profoundly irked Docter, who had always gone out of his way to avoid repeating himself artistically, and took particular pride in the studio’s innovative early output. (When Docter took over as Pixar’s chief creative officer in 2018 after his predecessor John Lasseter’s departure over a series of MeToo-related “missteps”, any further sequels were instantly outlawed.) And so Docter wrestled with his latest project, trying to find an angle that felt like genuinely new ground, but his last one hadn’t yet let go of him...