Pixar boss Pete Docter acknowledges it's a "weird time" for studio but is still "super excited" about making original movies – including sequels

Inside Out 2
(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

Pete Docter is the chief creative officer at Pixar and he has also been the director of several of the animation studio's most original (and best) films, and he serves as a producer on Inside Out 2 (having directed and co-written the film).

As the person in charge of steering Pixar’s creative direction, Docter has a hugely influential voice at the studio, so it’s no surprise that some comments he made about Pixar’s future in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek ended up going viral. All eyes have been on Pixar’s performances of late, as three out of their last five movies (Turning Red, Luca, Soul) debuted directly on Disney Plus, and before that Onward’s cinema run was strongly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the recent theatrical releases, Lightyear performed below expectations, and Elemental got off to a slow start, before demonstrating surprising legs for a solid overall total.

Given that several of those recent films have been original stories based on the very personal experiences of their directors, there was much attention given to Docter’s comments in the Bloomberg article, with one line attributed to him (though not a direct quote), stating that going forward, "the studio’s movies should be less a pursuit of any director’s catharsis and instead speak to a commonality of experience". What does that mean for their film slate going forward?

In an interview for this week’s episode of the Inside Total Film podcast, Docter unpacked that statement. "We always start with something [as on Inside Out 2] that is true for us," said Docter of selecting Pixar stories. "But we don't want it to be autobiographical. We want it to be personal. And if you chase too many of these specific details, you can kind of get stuck with a sense of like, 'No, no, that's not right, because that's not the way it happened to me.' And these films have to be universal. So we talk about specificity as being a gateway to the universal."

Inside Out 2

(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

Docter also highlights how this plays into the creation of a protagonist. "If you start with a character who's very generic, just thinking, 'Oh, he or she will stand in for everybody, it ends up being nobody.' But if you specifically say [as in Soul], 'OK, he's a Black musician who lives in New York who grew up in Brooklyn [and so on]'... you make choices, then suddenly, you start to feel he's actually more universal, the more specific you get." So, he says, it’s important for them to play with that specificity and personality "but not to the detriment of where the story needs to go".

The Bloomberg article also highlighted a renewed focus on sequels and spin-offs, so Total Film also asked about the ideal balance of between originals and spin-offs at Pixar going forward.

"Personally, I'm super excited to do original stuff," says Docter. "I think that's what made the Pixar name. That's how we got an Inside Out 2 because we made Inside Out 1. However, it's a weird time out there. We've done a number of originals that kind of nobody has heard of, and they don't make a big splash… Our third film [Toy Story 2] was a sequel. So it's not like we've never done sequels before. We've certainly been intrigued by exploring the world and part of the fun on Inside Out 2 was getting to revisit characters that we knew and loved, but see new sides of them: Joy gets mad, fear gets heroic, and we get to see different things and discover different facets of the characters that we already knew. So that's, that's fun, and not easy either. Sequels are just as hard [as originals]."

Inside Out 2 director Kelsey Mann also adds, "If you asked me to make a list of my favorite movies, there's going to be sequels on there." Mann also remembers having qualms when he first heard that Pixar was going to make a Toy Story 2. "I'm like, 'OK, they can do original movies, what are they gonna do with the sequel here? Are they just gonna phone it in?' And [they] did not. I was like, 'They are not messing around,' because they're treating the sequel with as much love and care as they do an original. And I've really tried to do that with [Inside Out 2] too."

Wrapping it up, Docter says, "I think it'll be a balance going forward of, 'How do we still bring original stuff and find new ideas and new voices, and then also deliver on new aspects of things that people we know that people love?'"

Inside Out 2 opens in cinemas on Friday, June 14. Early reactions to the film have been very positive, and you can hear more from Docter and Mann when the Inside Total Film podcast drops later this week.

Matt Maytum
Editor, Total Film

I'm the Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the running of the mag, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.