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Disney Pixar's 'Soul,' 'Onward' bring original ideas back to animation

Pete Docter, the relatively new chief creative officer of Pixar and the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind “Up” and “Inside Out,” took the stage Saturday to run the Pixar animation presentation in the first post-John Lassetter D23 Expo.

“I’ve been up here before as a filmmaker but not as the chief creative officer of Pixar. It is a very big job and I take it very seriously,” Docter said, before showing a silly caricature of himself.

“We are the luckiest people on earth, we up at Pixar,” he added, noting that Pixar is dedicated to “personal films” and will have two original — Docter emphasized the word “original” — films. “Sequel or original, the most important thing for us at Pixar is making films that speak to everyone.”

He promised Pixar isn’t abandoning its weirdness, either, referencing the studio’s iconic exaggerated and unexpected characters such as a chef rat and robot who picks up trash.

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Then he introduced “Soul,” which is set to open June 19, 2020, and is positioned as a film that will explore big topics: “Why am I here? Where did I come from?” he said of “Soul,” joking that it’s a film about metaphysics and the meaning of life.

The clip unveiled, however, showed what looked to be a heartfelt film about a school teacher, Joe, who has long dreamed of being a jazz musician. Just when he’s about to get his big break, he takes a giant misstep — falls down into a sewer — and ends up at a mysterious location called the “You Seminar.”

What is the You Seminar? It’s essentially the place where souls go to get their personalities. At You Seminar, you develop, for instance, your anxieties, your fears or your passions. The film becomes a quest to get Joe back to Earth and to learn, said Docter, “what it means to have soul.”

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Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross will do the film’s music. Batiste will handle the jazz while Reznor and Ross will tackle the score. Voice actors include Questlove from the Roots as a jazz drummer, Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother and Daveed Diggs as Joe’s nemesis. Jamie Foxx voices Joe opposite Tina Fey as the cute blueish-green soul Joe meets at the You Seminar.

Foxx did a little scat of “D23” while Fey joked this was the only way she could score passes to the Expo. “You’re going to like it,” she said. “It’s real emotional. There’s nothing like a Pixar movie.”

Docter then switched to “Onward,” opening March 6, 2020, with a clip showing mystical creatures — unicorns, faeries and wizards — in olden times. The footage then cut to a magical suburbia, where gnomes and mermaids live boring lives in inflatable pools and stress about taking out the trash. This appears important, as unicorns are trash-loving monsters in this fantasy.

“My brother and I lost our father at a young age,” said director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), saying his journey to understand who he was and where he came from inspired the film.

The blue-toned elf characters of Ian and Barley Lightfoot, voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, love their van. Ian named it Pegasus and it’s decked in cheesy air-brushed paint, and this character will sort of stand in for Scanlon.

“I do feel like Tom is a little brother to me, and you see that reflected in this movie,” Pratt said on stage.

“Last time we were here, we were like space buddies,” Holland added, referencing their (recently fractured) Marvel Cinematic Universe relationship as Spider-Man and Star-Lord. “Now, we’re elf buddies.”

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The brothers’ mother will be voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing an middle-aged elf named Laurel. She noted it has been fun to play “an elf mom to these to bozos.”

Scanlon then played eight minutes of the film, set during Ian’s 16th birthday. Mom gives the children what appears to be a wizard staff, once belonging to their missing father. He left a note — a spell. It’s a “visitation spell” that promises to bring their father back for one day.

Barley tries to conjure the spell, but it doesn’t appear to work, leaving Barley and Ian depressed. Not even their pet snake seems to cheer them up, and Ian declines a request to pick up a cake. Ian, a socks-and-sandals wearing elf, then reads the spell and awakens the staff.

We then see the wizard-turned-accountant father of Ian and Barley start to materialize as a whirlwind of magic consumes the home. The father elf then is shown in the closet, his feet starting to ruffle. But there’s a problem: Dad only exists from the waist down, as slacks and brown loafers.

The sentient legs, however, are able to recognize the sons and tap to communicate. Father will disappear in 24 hours, and the gem needed to activate the staff is busted. But there is hope, and it’s in fantasy role-playing games inspired by “Magic: the Gathering” and “Dungeons & Dragons,” which in the world of “Onward” are true stories. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is also in the cast, voicing a warrior who helps send the boys on a fantasy quest.

The presentation ends with the boys running out of gas on their journey and Ian casting a spell-gone-wrong that miniaturizes his brother.

Before the cast leaves, Holland seems to address the “Spider-Man” controversy from the stage: “It’s been a crazy week, but I want you know that I am grateful from the bottom of my heart, and I love you 3000.”

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Times staff writer Ashley Lee contributed to this report.

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