Synopsis – A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
My Take – I think we all can agree that when it comes to animated feature films, Pixar Studios, over the past three decades, have always managed to be a class apart, with even their weaker films (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur, Brave) standing out with their representative elements.
While the animation studio already found success earlier this year with the release of Onward, a film which unfairly saw its theatrical run cut short due to the still ongoing pandemic, their second release had more of the hype attached to it. Mainly as it is the studio’s first feature with a Black protagonist, their first focus on the community, and most importantly it also marked the highly anticipated return of Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out) to the director and writer’s chairs.
Unsurprisingly, the film which debuted on Disney+ and selected theaters worldwide yesterday, is nothing short of excellent. Like one has come to expect, from its animation to story to voice cast, Pixar’s latest feature about an aspiring Black jazz musician with an important life lesson to learn, is in a special league of its own. Especially because despite containing their most conceptual story yet, the feature in many ways reminds you of their earlier catalogue, were the films used to be dominated by silly, kid-friendly humor but layered with such a deeply humanistic and sincere solemnity that felt entirely adult.
Now using a story that literally and directly questions the meaning of life, director Docter along with co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, have once again created a masterpiece they can add to their still growing library of artwork.
The story follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged gifted jazz pianist who is still dreaming of doing more than just being a middle school band teacher. To fuel his dream he continues to pick up gigs to perform, much to the fury of his mother, Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), who is convinced that his dream of having a jazz-musician career is worthless, and instead urges him to accept the permanent position his school offered him as it provides more security.
To his luck, a former student, Curley (voiced by Questlove) calls to offer him an audition with Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett), a respected jazz musician and saxophone player. Convinced that his dream life is about to start as he aces the audition, Joe unfortunately finds himself in a fatal accident that lands him in the Great Hereafter as a soul, minus his body.
Convinced that his time has not come, Joe remains determined to find his way back, and along with a bratty soul designated 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), he hatches a scheme to hijack his supposed death and get back in time to make his mark on jazz.
Without a doubt this is a wonderful film, just begging to be watched, and overthought about, over and over again. The film moves at a fairly breakneck speed for large parts of the story. Joe’s circumstances change constantly in the film’s first two acts, almost the moment audiences take in who he is and where he’s going, they’re given a new setting and a new set of imperatives.
The kids will surely love the body-swapping second act, where Joe finds himself in a cat’s body and 22 in Joe, and will raise a chuckle or two are the slapstick interludes, especially when 22 adjusts to Joe’s lanky limbs and navigates the various hurdles in the New York hustle.
But the film never feels disorienting or rushed as a result, and it’s all in service of setting up a contrast with a more languid and evocative third act that slows down long enough to ask some big questions about purpose and meaning.
Though, director Pete Docter mines familiar territory, having explored the celestial regions of the human mind by manifesting a young girl’s emotions anthropomorphically in Inside Out (2015), in his latest, he takes into a startling new visual realm where we can completely indulge in imaginations.
The crew has clearly put a lot of thought into designing a dimensional world that looks unfamiliar, yet soft and comforting, a kind of cuddly cradle that still feels startlingly alien. Even Joe’s transition from Beyond to before feels like a show reel, a series of giddy visual experiments where the filmmakers’ imaginations get the kind of free rein that’s becoming more uncommon as animation relentlessly moves closer to visual realism.
The animators also vividly capture 22’s first sensory experiences on Earth. For instance, it’s love at first bite with pizza for 22. And as beautiful as the animation is, the real success of the film lies in its writing.
It does, for the most part, follow the typical Pixar story beats, but the way it builds to its final point is masterful. As it forces viewers to ask ourselves if we are living our life with meaning and purpose each and every day. The approach on philosophical questions like “what’s my purpose?”, “what’s my spark?”, or “what does it mean to have a soul?” is cleverly developed and very well-written.
A simple scene where a character looks up at a tree, with sunlight filtering through the leaves and falling on their face, is as warm and life-affirming as anything Pixar has ever done. The film takes on questions like “Does fantasy ever live up to reality?” and “Can the choices that give our lives meaning actually satisfy us?”, but its best revelations come from its moments of stillness and simplicity.
Sure, given its vast canvas, the film sometimes struggles to focus on that more intimate story. But the script is so terrific, it manages to couch reams of exposition within a bevy of jokes ranging from the philosophical to cheap shots at the New York Knicks. A late-film montage, as Joe plays piano and remembers scenes from his life, recalls the depth of bittersweet, complicated emotion every Pixar film used to have.
Voice work wise, like every other Pixar film, everyone from the leads, Jamie Fox and Tina Fey, to the supporting cast comprising of Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Graham Norton and Rachel House, to smaller roles like the ones of Daveed Diggs, Donnell Rawlings, June Squibb, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff, are given ample opportunity to shine and perform. On the whole, ‘Soul’ is yet another ambitious and exemplary Pixar feature which while being funny, delightful, and complex also manages to provide a rich story for all ages.
Directed – Pete Docter
Rated – PG
Run Time – 100 minutes