With 2020 in the books, most likely one telling a sci-fi dystopian tale, Soul remains one of the most remarkable films of last year and indeed Pixar’s own back catalogue. All from a loose set of inspirations such as aerogel and Herbie Hancock. Pixar, and importantly Pete Docter, crafted another gem in their filmography. Balancing an introspective exploration of what aspirations mean to our lives, with an uplifting tone, Soul already feels like a film beyond the regular fare of Pixar. Whilst it does hurt itself with its depiction of its black male lead who is at many points sidelined in a way that plays into harmful tropes of Pixar’s animated past, Soul’s message of what life’s pursuits are and the relationships we build is one that is a necessary story in an age where our lives feel more driven by beset goals than ever. It helps even further that it is aided by Pixar’s usual high standard of animation and a wondrous musical score.
However, this kind of quality is not an irregularity from Docter’s directorial pursuits. As it now stands, Docter has four directorial features in the form of Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out and Soul. All of which have stood the test of time and remain some of the greatest Pixar have produced. Personally, I believe Inside Out is their best film, but even with the subjective arguments of ranking the Pixar films aside, each of these four films definitely retain their own identity amongst the more standard Pixar fare.
What can’t be argued is the critical and commercial acclaim of these examples. Critically, all of them have been received warmly, with four and five star reviews aplenty. In terms of accolades, the first three of Docter’s films have picked up 11 Academy Award nominations (if you believe that’s the ultimate qualifier of greatness), with Up even being a best picture nominee in 2009 and Soul sure to be knocking about this upcoming awards season. Commercially, each of the first three have made over $500m at the worldwide box office and sit firmly as films to look forward to, despite some more recent middling efforts.
This discussion brings to it the question: Is Pete Docter a modern directing great?
Well, to answer that, we must first consider how we actually define a modern directing great. All this is to say that for this we won’t be talking about Hitchcock and Kubrick who have had the privilege of time on their side. But for this, we can look to some modern directors who have continued working and are culturally and critically recognised as greats and see why they are considered so.
For some, it’s a basic argument of individual quality. That across a director’s filmography there are enough great films to justify their cultural status. This applies to directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, each of these individuals’ acclaim has been guaranteed through a varied catalogue that includes some established iconic films. Obviously, Docter doesn’t have this yet to the same degree, with only four films and arguably only two of these classed true greats if we want to set the bar high.
So, how can we account for modern directors who don’t have the advantage of decades worth of work on their side? Well, it happens that a lot of great directors are kicking around at the minute. From these examples, we can gather a couple of key parameters that can help formulate an answer. Firstly, some of the modern greats have a streak of excellent films that solidify their status across the industry. There are many recent directors that fall under this umbrella. Take Edgar Wright, whose Cornetto trilogy is intersected between Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End with Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Regardless of the more varied opinions of The World’s End, that streak established Wright’s sublime editing style and comedic timing. Denis Villeneuve finds himself in the midst of an incredible set of Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 with the much-anticipated Dune arriving this year. Steve McQueen is coming off 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, 2018’s massively overlooked Widows and the recent Small Axe anthology series. Even directors who could have an incredible upcoming decade are those who have only made a couple of films that prove their potential for cinematic excellence. For that, look no further than Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women).
Perhaps another way to judge modern greatness is in a more stylistic argument. As alluded to with Wright, directors can establish their own individual high standard through unique artistic choices and motifs that permeate throughout their filmography. Despite his (personally) most underwhelming project with Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s collection of films all play with the presentation of time to the audience in unique ways, with Memento, Inception and Dunkirk all doing so to high degrees of success. Guillermo del Toro’s filmography is a display of extravagant costume and set design. That even extends to another current rising star in the animation space in Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells, The Breadwinner) whose work with Cartoon Saloon has produced films teeming with life built upon silent but powerful animated shots.
So with these factors in play, is Docter a directing great? Well, perhaps so. It’s also perhaps too early to call now with only the four films under his belt. Maybe he fits more into the category of those who could be a crucial part of the next decade of filmmaking, particularly given his role at Pixar. In terms of a streak of films, you could argue that streak is here with Up, Inside Out and Soul. In terms of a stylistic argument, he definitely has directed some of Pixar’s most unique features, particularly with his last two being more about taking an original idea or a strange space to explore, and constructing a plot around it. However, if he keeps going as he is into the 2020s, there is very little doubt to be had as to the directing legacy he will have created for himself.