From the very beginning of Pixar’s Soul, 22 — a soul who refuses to come down to Earth — is cynical. She hates the idea of inhabiting a body or finding her inspiration, instead being content with spending eternity in the “great before,” a space meant to prepare souls for their human lives. Viewers don’t really get a sense of why she feels that way — but that’s about to change in the upcoming animated short 22 vs. Earth.
“I didn’t want the short to be a mirror of what she was like in the feature,” says director Kevin Nolting, who also served as lead editor on Soul. “In looking at what the story would be, the interesting thing for me is what makes her who she is in the feature. This is one of those incidents. In the beginning she was one of those innocent souls; what was the process to make her the cynical soul she is when Joe Gardner shows up? This is just one step in that process.”
22 vs. Earth is a prequel, though it’s not clear how long before Soul it’s set. In it, 22 — once again voiced by Tina Fey — tries to gather a crew of adorable, innocent souls in order to stage a rebellion of sorts. Things, naturally, don’t go according to plan. Nolting notes that the story takes place around the “mid-point” of 22’s story. “For maybe a few hundred years she’s gone through this series of disappointments, and now she’s going to do something about it,” he explains.
“I operated on the assumption that people would’ve seen the feature”
It’s the kind of origin story the team at Pixar considered including in Soul, but they ultimately decided against it so they could keep the focus on protagonist Joe Gardner. The team also explored a few different ideas within the Soul universe for the short, including stories based on both Terry — the stuffy accountant from the “great beyond” — and another on Mr. Mittens the therapy cat. But Nolting says 22’s origin “just seemed to be the most natural fit.”
It did introduce some problems, though — namely, figuring out who the audience is. Many of Pixar’s shorts are standalone stories, but given how complex the universe of Soul is, Nolting and the team decided that 22 vs. Earth had to be a companion piece. It was just too difficult to explain how its vision of the pre- and afterlife worked in a film that lasts just a few minutes.
“We struggled on the feature [film] where we had 90 minutes to play with,” explains Nolting. “We struggled with how do you introduce this world, how do you make the rules clear, while making it dramatically interesting. So to have to do that all over again, and in a five minute short, that would eat up all the time. I operated on the assumption that people would’ve seen the feature, they’re familiar with 22, they’re familiar with the mechanics of the Soul world.”
22 vs. Earth will debut on Disney Plus on April 30th, and it manages to capture many of the same feelings of existential angst as Soul — just in a much smaller and cuter package. For Nolting, it was this mix of flavors that made the project so interesting. “I just love the contrast of the innocent and the cynical,” he says. “That was the big appeal for me.”