Pixar, the computer animation studio beloved for its kid-friendly fare such as “Finding Nemo” and “Inside Out,” is not known for taking on religious themes.
But its newest short film tells a personal story about a boy who learns to appreciate his religious heritage by envisioning the Hindu gods as superheroes.
“Sanjay’s Super Team,” directed by artist Sanjay Patel, is based on Patel’s relationship with his father and his experience growing up in California as the son of Indian-American immigrants.
“This is a very personal story; it’s the truth about how I grew up,” Patel said. “It’s about how difficult it is for different generations to see eye to eye.”
In the film, a young Sanjay would much rather watch cartoons and play with his action figures than join his father for puja, a daily Hindu ritual of meditation and prayer.
But as the film progresses, Sanjay begins to imagine the gods he is praying to as superheroes, sparking his interest in Hinduism.
The seven-minute film premiered in June at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France and will be shown in U.S. theaters before the release of “The Good Dinosaur” on Nov. 25.
It follows on the success of “Meet the Patels,” a documentary about a 30-year-old Indian-American looking for love while posing thoughtful questions about cultural assimilation.
But while there’s been no dearth of adult movies about Christian themes — some observers dubbed 2014 “The Year of the Bible” in film — it’s far less common to see minority religions featured on the big screen.
“I don’t know if the film will make sense to the average viewer, but the experience of being able to bring together two identities is the experience of a lot of people from a distinct ethnic culture,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.
“Routinely you have generations straddling an Eastern identity at home and a Western identity outside of it,” she added. “That balancing of things, I believe people can connect to that.”
Shukla said that while growing up, she rarely saw characters who reflected her experience or the way she looked. She is excited for her two children to see the short film and thinks it is a step in the right direction.
A subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co., Pixar is taking a risk that has previously ensnared Urban Outfitters and Victoria’s Secret, to name a few companies whose forays into religious-themed clothing and decor resulted in a backlash and product recalls.
Disney’s 1995 film “Pocahontas” was regarded by many Native American groups as straying too far from history for the sake of entertainment.
But Shukla said “Sanjay’s Super Team” might be subject to less criticism than other films because it is “almost autobiographical.”
“It’s really a reflection of his experience,” she said of the director. “As long as you include stakeholders in the very beginning of the formation of a vision, you can really end up with a good product.”
Patel said that while growing up in Southern California, he just wanted to fit in. He did not become interested in Hinduism until he discovered a book of Indian miniature paintings.
“I read the stories behind the art, and that was the key to unlock all of these characters,” he said. “I want to convey how I felt when I found all these myths and stories. I was really excited.”
Patel said he wants the film to make other kids who feel different feel more normal: “I want to take my parents’ culture and my father’s experience and make it instantly gettable and cool.”
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