The Metaphysical Appeal of Pete Docter’s Post-2010 Pixar

April 6, 2022

The title of this post might seem like an annoyingly long way to say that I want to discuss the Pixar movies Inside Out (2015) and Soul (2020), both written and directed by Pete Docter—but bear with me here.

Post-2010s Pixar

Pixar Animation Studios, once the unrivaled producer of high quality for-every-age animated feature films, has been seeing a steady, slow sigh into high-tech mediocrity. Before the 2010s a Pixar flop was completely unheard of (say what you will about Cars but it was 100x better than The Good Dinosaur). Likely this is to do with turnover and controversy within the studio leadership, a general Disneyfication of the ideas (think Brave, Coco, Onward), and resources wasted doing pointless sequels (Monsters University, Cars 2 & 3, Toy Story 4).

Growing up in the early 2000s on Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, it was clear to me even then that this was some kind of gold standard for storytelling. As a family we’d watch these films repeatedly and never tire of them, and as I grew older I found that what I enjoyed in each story shifted, while my overall appreciation only deepened. Part of the mastery and enduring appeal of early Pixar movies is their ability to captivate both children and adults.

Despite the decline in quality, two post-2010s Pixar “hits” stand out as worthy of their predecessors: Inside Out and Soul. I remember how popular Inside Out was when it came out in 2015, and it’s still consistently ranked (almost offensively) high among my peers’ Pixar favorites and in popular culture (#4 on Rotten Tomatoes, #3 on ScreenRant and Collider). Soul is newer, released in 2020 during the pandemic, but it was similarly received with enthusiasm by my animation-loving friends and had, what felt like, the misplaced popular appeal that Inside Out did (Vox ranked Soul as #4!).

The praise and wide popularity of these two movies was confusing, since to me—although I enjoyed both and particularly loved the animation in Soul—I felt they missed the standard previously set by Pixar for storytelling. It’s important now to note that both of these movies were written and directed by Pete Docter (long-standing creative force at Pixar who also directed Up and Monsters, Inc. and helped develop WALL-E and Toy Story 1 & 2), and I think the common thread of his creative direction ties Inside Out and Soul together in an interesting way.

In both stories there is an almost naive (in its un-reflexiveness) expression of modernity. Inside Out was an—I will argue—failed attempt at saying something profound about our psyche, but for that same reason was popular because the premise was so satisfying (not necessarily creative, but satisfying). And Soul, in contrast to its larger-than-life premise, was weirdly more rooted in the current cultural moment than any other Pixar movie, based solely on its metaphysical quandaries. The strength of these movies and the source of their popularity among my generation is the same reason they fall short.

Inside Out

Inside Out is the first Pixar movie to draw heavily from modern scientific concepts, and also one of the first children’s movies to explore quite complex psychological ideas such as core memory, executive functioning, and depression. It takes place inside the mind of a pre-teen girl as her emotions—each personified into a character—get into shenanigans as they grapple for executive control.

The idea of having several selves and something akin to a miniature world inside our mind has been a subject of research in both psychology and neuroscience for decades. In the Social Brain (1985), psychologist Michael Gazzaniga writes,

But what of the idea that the self is not a unified being, and there may exist within us several realms of consciousness? ... From our [split-brain] studies the new idea emerges that there are literally several selves, and they do not necessarily ‘converse’ with each other internally.

Modern neuroscience has gone on to confirm and better understand this notion of the split self, and therapeutic approaches such as Internal Family Systems (IFS) use the relationship between one’s distinct sub-personalities to model their psychological world. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014), writes about IFS:

At the core of IFS is the notion that the mind of each of us is like a family in which the members have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom, and pain. The parts form a network or system in which change in any one part will affect all the others.

This concept is a brilliant setting to adapt for an animated story. Inside Out appears to take wholesale the idea of the mind as a society, but it transforms the principle of subpersonalities into caricatured emotions (joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust). The choice of these specific emotions are derived from discrete emotion theory—notably Paul Ekman’s 1992 study which, based on the analysis of cross-cultural facial expressions, found evidence for just six universal basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

Anger, Fear, Joy, Sadness, and Disgust overlooking the “personality islands” in Inside Out (2015)

Since all the emotion-representative characters in Inside Out are necessarily one-dimensional, the story suffers, ironically, from a lack of character complexity. The fact that this happens reveals a hole in atomistic scientific understanding: by demystifying a large process—such as the human mind—and breaking it down into smaller, simpler systems, we seem to lose something essential.

The inherently structural way that Inside Out’s story falls flat exemplifies this: the movie is more effective as a flawed educational exposition than a special, deeply human story. We watch the interplay of the concepts of sadness, joy, and anger. To the extent that these personalities are stand-ins for supposedly universal voices inside our minds, the characters are utterly forgettable.

The plot showcases what can go wrong when our emotions get out of whack, but after peeling back the humorous facade of the adventure, the primary takeaway is that a myopic obsession with being always joyful can be unhealthy and that sadness isn’t just a meaningless negative emotion (how very American of a discernment!).


In 2020, we got Soul from Docter—a story about an unhappy music teacher, Joe, whose true passion is to play jazz piano professionally. Joe gets into an accident and basically dies, entering a purgatorial intermediate space. But, unwilling to die (which in the movie’s world is represented by walking into the “Great Beyond”), by some fluke he ends up in the “Great Before”, where unborn souls are prepared for Earth-life.

The “Great Before”in Soul (2020)

The metaphysics of the Great Before are fascinating in the transparent way it tackles modern unease about determinism and purpose. Each unborn soul must find a “spark” in order to earn a badge qualifying it to be born. The central tension of the movie revolves around figuring out the true nature of a spark: initially it seems to be a soul’s purpose, but in the end we learn that it’s actually a soul’s will to live.

This speaks to the modern American predicament on several levels: the struggle and simultaneous pressure to have a passion career, the anxiety that there is no individual life purpose outside some kind of frantic humanism, and the abandonment of any spiritual foundation for metaphysics (and thus the feeling that we can and must make it up). Only 21st century Americans are worrying this hard about finding meaning against the impossibility of making our dreams come true—the world here (in the U.S.) is unprecedented in its individualism, capitalistic paradoxes, and spiritual confusion.

Though Pete Docter is explicitly a Christian [source], in a sense we all are kind of Christian if we grew up in the West because of the massive inheritance baked into our very intuition. Tom Holland (the author! not the littlest Spiderman) has written in his book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (2019) that

To live in a western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions.

As Charles Taylor has also argued in his book A Secular Age (2007), to live agnostically in the modern Western world is to live with a phantom morality and an unplaceable yearning for meaning that is larger than life. When our ethics and metaphysics become untethered from any concrete system of belief, a space opens up for confusion, inexplicable dissatisfaction, and obsessions with whatever we currently define as worldly success. We feel we live in a contradictory world that is not suited for us, yet as a society we continuously struggle to bend the world to our needs, and we make movies like Soul to justify the effort—all as if to say: don’t worry, even though it feels like we are destroying ourselves, modern life is worth it!

There are a host of contemporary speculative fiction TV shows exploring similar questions as Soul: The Good Place (2016-2020), Forever (2018), Russian Doll (2019-), After Life (2019-2022). The metaphysics of life outside life seems to have solidly moved into the realm of complete creative freedom, while remaining interesting because of our deep-seated existential dread. Many of these shows take a Michael Shur-esque humorous approach to these topics, which highlights the absurdity of the entire situation of Life After Death and usually ends up coming to some humanistic, consolatory conclusion.

And as consolation only, Soul succeeds, though even its primary takeaway about purpose comes across a bit muddied. There is a character in the Great Before named “22” who has been for a long time unable to find her spark, and thus blocked from being born on Earth. This is resolved when 22 experiences the beauty of nature for the first time after breaking into Earth with Joe, and as a result of the whole thing Joe also gets a second try at life.

After reflecting on the film, my friend texted me:

Stories like this really highlight to me the cultural shift of humanism where there is nothing to attain beyond average human flourishing. 22 was excited to live partly because of the beauty of the trees and sun and maple leaf [i.e.] just for the sake of the beauty [...] it just feels flat to me.

The resolution of the plot basically says that the answer to the question of meaning and purpose is 1. beauty (nature) and 2. humanism (helping each other out, the common human good, etc.). Docter has no interest in [source] and also realistically probably couldn’t make the story about the existence of some higher moral, all-knowing creator entity in the Abrahamic sense, so Soul’s story is essentially the empty space of what he can’t explicitly propound. In other words, this is what’s left for us when we have no spiritual grounding: metaphysical make-up land and a confused humanism as substitute religion. The story falls flat because it is attempting to say something profound about life but it just reiterates empty principles we tell ourselves as a society: that we should help our friends, and that “beauty” is the ultimate thing that makes being human special.

A good story doesn’t need to say anything about life, death, or metaphysics in order to be effective, but Soul’s failure lies in the fact that it acts like it is saying something about these things—in fact its entire plot hinges on the presumption that its conclusion is one that’s needed and worth making—and yet it is not.

As with Inside Out, Soul’s weakness is simultaneously its strength and its popular appeal. It’s all too satisfying to see our contemporary intuitions play out, flawed as they may be.

Note: As of April 6, 2022 I still haven’t seen Turning Red so forgive me if it was wildly good and the beginning of this post sounded too harsh.