Sanjay's Super Team' Is Pixar's Most Personal Film [Comic Con 2015]

The next computer animated short film from Pixar Animation Studios is Sanjay's Super Team, which will be attached to The Good Dinosaur when that feature hits theaters on November 25th 2015.

Thursday at Comic Con, Pixar held a presentation called The Super Story Behind the Pixar Short Sanjay's Super Team, which also served as the North American premiere of the short. After the jump you can find out what I thought about the film, and the backstory behind the film, which made me experience Sanjay's Super Team on a level different from other shorts.

Sanjay's Super TeamSanjay's Super Team is directed by 41-year-old filmmaker Sanjay Patel, who started out as a character layout artist on The Simpsons in the mid-1990s, and has worked at Pixar for many years. He was an animator and story artist on A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Monsters University and some of Pixar's other short films.

The first time the short screened in the hall, I was taken aback about how different it felt compared to the other Pixar and Disney short films. Sanjay's Super Team feels like a much more personal project than the Pixar short films that have come before it.

I was left with more of a feeling of admiration than the usual love I have for most of the other Pixar shorts. But I had the remarkable experience of watching the film a second time at the conclusion of the panel and having a completely different response to the film. The second time I watched the movie I had a much more emotional connection to the story. My eyes may have even teared up a bit.

What changed in the 30 minutes between the first and second viewings? Pixar presented us with the backstory of how the short film came about. Knowing the personal story behind the story presented in the short made me enjoy the animated film on a while new level.

Sanjay's Super Team

The opening of the film sees Sanjay's father interrupt his son's Saturday morning superhero cartoon television viewing by ringing his bell for morning meditation. The kid is uninterested in the Hindu prayer and only wants to play with a superhero action figure. In the process of reaching for his toy, he accidentally blows out the candle and is transported into a cosmic Hindu temple where his real transformative adventure begins.

The short film is inspired by Patel's own upbringing in San Bernardino CA. Sanjay was embarrassed by his parent's Hindu culture and religion. He rejected it as a child because he wanted to be "more American" and fit in with other kids. He later found meaning in his heritage, first through a subset of rave music which reimagined the Hindu gods that he rejected from his childhood. The short starts with a title card saying "based on a mostly true story," and the credits feature photos of Sanjay Patel and his father, both from childhood and more recently.

Inspired by some of the other Pixar animators who self published independent books, Patel created a book on Hindu deities but presented them in his own interpretation. He released the book almost a decade ago at Comic Con, and it later got picked up by a publisher and the project expanded into something larger. For a while he was animating at Pixar during the day while working on the books at night. Pixar approached Sanjay to try to develop a short film based on his Hindu culture, and at first he was hesitant about the prospect.

The first pitch for the film was titled "Thief", which is fairly different than the final film. We saw the pitch presented in storyboards. The story saw a boy sitting on the edge of a hindu temple, watching the shoes of the worshipers. The boy is uninterested, instead reading a superhero comic which ends with a cliffhanger. He wants to find out what happens next and steals some coins from the donation box in order to go buy the next issue. But before that can happen, he is zapped by the Hindu priest and is sent into the world of the Hindu deities. It is there that he has a superhero style battle, similar to the one in the short film. He eventually gets zapped into reality and sees his experience painted on the wall. The story of the gods now means something more to him. The boy decides to put the stolen donation back into the box along with the money he earned. He returns home to draw his own superhero comic book, inspired by the gods and culture that he previously ignored. He pitched the story to John Lasseter, who suggested that he tell a story closer to his own childhood.

The video I wish everyone could see before they see the film is a video of Sanjay's father's reaction to the highly personal short film. Sanjay invited his father to screen the film at Pixar. His father had not seen any of his son's films. For that matter, he had not seen a movie in 40-something years. The video shows his father trying to give his reaction to the film, while being brought to tears — he was very emotionally taken by the personal story. Seeing this reaction and hearing Sanjay's personal backstory made me enjoy the short on a much more emotional level.

Its also worth noting that the short takes a bunch of stylistic choices that are unexpected from a Pixar short film:

  • Sanjay's Super Team is completely free of any dialogue, and features a non-western score by Oscar-winning Life of Pi composer Mychael Danna.
  • The style of the short is partially inspired by anime, from the large eye design of the characters to the animation style of the over-the-top action (characters throwing fireballs and flying through the air, with the background flying by as a set of lines).