“An adult film that kids can enjoy”: ‘SOUL’ producer on mature themes, Pixar’s revitalization

Producer Dana Murray, center, with co-directors Pete Docter (left) and Kemp Powers at the D23 conference in 2019. Courtesy: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

If you’ve cried during a Pixar movie, you are not alone.

Don’t be fooled by these films being marketed towards children. They’re filled with colorful and exciting adventures, with stunning animation and fun characters, but they often explore deep, mature themes. Whether they ponder what we lose by simply growing up (Toy Story), rewriting our stories after a personal tragedy (Up), or serve as needed reminders that we’re complicated creatures who have feelings that are valid and deserve recognition (Inside Out), it’s clear that Pixar is out to do more than merely entertain.

The animation studios’ latest, Soul, is no different. In many ways, the new film brings together many life and morality lessons from across Pixar’s filmography. It casts a wide net by tackling life as a whole and narrowing in on the fibers of our being: What makes us individually unique? As well as: What unites us through our differences? As much as we may giggle over a squirrel chasing a nut or the classic cat-and-mouse game, nothing much compares to Pixar’s inspiring tales that illustrate complex human emotions and help us articulate difficult subject matter to our children.

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Soul delves into the journey of a middle school music teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who, following a near-death experience, becomes stuck in a spiritual/purgatorial area known as “The Great Before,” where souls prepare for life on Earth. One soul Joe meets amid his newfound predicament is 22 (Tina Fey), a sardonic deuteragonist who has a dim view of the Land of the Living. Together, they work to get Joe’s soul back to his body before it’s too late.

To shed a little light on Soul’s beautiful message of believing that all lives have merit, whether dreams or achieved or not, is producer Dana Murray. Raised in Placerville, California, the filmmaker joined Pixar in summer 2001 as a desk production assistant on Finding Nemo. She has worked in various other department positions since then, including lighting coordinator for Cars and production manager for Inside Out, before producing her first project, the 2017 short film Lou.

Murray recently spoke with Fresh Fiction via Zoom, where she discussed making films that keep everyone’s perspectives in mind, checking themes and story to ensure a story resonates, and how Pixar has the power to ignite a thoughtful conversation between children and parents.

Preston Barta: I was five when Toy Story came out, and it was such a magical experience that I have never forgotten. But now, I’m a dad, and I get to relive these experiences through my child, but from the perspective of a parent. Pixar seems to recognize the journeys that kids and parents go on when audiences watch these films. Is that what appeals to you as a creative at this company, and how Pixar films have the ability to get people thinking differently about how they live their lives?

Dana Murray: “I love hearing you say that. You started at five, and now you’re a dad. I think that’s something that we make our films for: for everybody. We really want everyone to enjoy them. But I think that you’re right. [Docter’s] ideas especially seem to really resonate. Obviously, there’s older themes in this film. I mean, it started from a personal place of [Docter] feeling like he was having a midlife crisis moment. So, obviously, our five-year-olds aren’t probably going to relate to that theme. Still, there’s so much layered in there for them, like the personality pavilions, where they come from a lot of humor and visual storytelling.”

“Questlove, who was a cultural consultant and also in the film, said to us, ‘I think all Pixar films are like kid films that adults enjoy, except Soul.’ He said, ‘I think it’s an adult film that kids can enjoy.’ So, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’”

I feel like Pixar is always finding unique ways to push the envelope, and that’s what makes it exciting as a viewer. But does that fear of pushing the envelope too far ever come in?

“We definitely check ourselves. As we’re working on these films, we’re being pretty selfish in the beginning about just making a film that we really want to see and things that we care about. So, something we did on Inside Out and this film is, we did a kids screening. The entire crew brings their kids in pretty early on in the process to check that we’re not being naive—that these concepts and all these different things are something that kids can actually follow.”

“And we have found both times, and even in our audience preview, that the kids are often the smartest ones in the room when it comes to this stuff, because of how honest they are. And they’ll just go with you where it’s usually the adults that are saying things like, ‘My kid’s not going to understand this.’ And it’s the kids that are like, ‘No, no, no, Mom. I get it.’ So, yeah, we’ve found that kids will go with you on the journey.”

How has Pixar’s view of the world changed the way that you look at it?

“I think that I’ve realized that these films have a really far reach, and there’s responsibility with that. [Docter] told a story of when he was working on Up, they went on a research trip down to visit the Tepuis in Venezuela. They were in the middle of the jungle, and he saw a little kid with a Toy Story t-shirt on. And it just really affected him. Of course, you know — but then when he saw that, he just realized, ‘Wow. These films really impact people, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re telling something that pokes at big questions.’”

“We’re not trying to answer what life’s about, but our goal is that people can have a conversation at home after this one, and talk about what those things mean and just maybe have self-evaluation. So, I think they have taken on a new meaning for me. Since I have kids now, too, I think your perspective changes.”

Obviously, there’s the brainstorming with the creatives when starting out a new project, working with the animators to realize the vision, and sharing the final product with a loved one. As a producer, what part of the process feels the most exciting and meaningful to you?

“It’s really fun to work with the actors and musicians. And the cultural trust was really amazing. But there’s something really gratifying in the process when you’re really struggling with the story, and then you have some breakthrough one day. That always feels good because figuring out the story is the most stressful and difficult part of the process. It always is.”

Soul is now available to stream on Disney+.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.