Releasing right on Christmas Day on Disney+ instead of theaters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Soul”– the latest Pixar animated film directed by Peter Docter and co-directed by American playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers, is one of the most uplifting films of the whole year, a film that will bring great joy and splendor with its deep and existential themes of belonging, fulfillment, and worthiness. The timing of the film couldn’t be better either, just as we are living in peril times from a global pandemic that has tragically taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and millions globally this far. Along with a deeply polarizing election year and a divided nation that needs healing, hopefully “Soul” can be that film that can bring families and people together during this holiday season.
Docter and his Pixar collaborators have once again crafted a wonderful film that will resonant not only with children, but also with their parents as well. Like his 2015 standout film “Inside Out,” “Soul” is a highly inventive, sophisticated, and witty animated film that holds a lot of philosophies on metaphysics and spirituality.
Just as “Inside Out” tackled on some high-minded ideas by exploring human emotions through cell membranes of brain neurons, “Soul” is also innovative as this time it explores the metaphysics of death (or near death experience), an uncomfortable issue that we all face, and a topic that might seem too bleak and despairing for a holiday family film. However, Docter and Powers elevate the uncomfortable topic and turn it into a film about awakenings, self-discovery, and one enduring transcendence through epiphanies. “Soul” ends up becoming a deeply moving and sincere film about how everyone does hold their own purpose, and how life isn’t so much about career, money, status, but rather more about holding experiences in life’s small joys that we all take for granted These are all familiar themes, and “Soul” is covering familiar ground, however, the film still feels fresh and inventive in how it’s conveyed thanks mainly to it’s innovative animation, emotionally charged story, involving characters, and a diverse cast in which this marks the first Pixar film to have a mostly Black cast of animated characters.
The film is also engaging as it asks fascinating questions on the human experience: How do we form our personalities? What is our purpose in our life? What difference do we make in our existence? Doctor and Powers ponder these questions through the film’s protagonist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a Manhattan jazz piano player who teaches band as a part-time job to middle schoolers. Joe ends up getting an offer to teach at the school part time which comes with a salary, pension, job security, and health insurance. But Joe has other yearnings of wanting to play in a band to a live crowd. Joe ends up getting that opportunity after Curly (Questlove), a former pupil of his invites him to audition for a jazz band that is led by Dorothy Donegan (Angela Bassett), an acclaimed jazz saxophonist who is impressed with his playing during the audition. For once feeling rewarded, Joe’s jubilation is instantly undermined once he falls into a sewer right after a hilariously clever montage we see him dodging death.
Joe ends up in this purgatory spiritual universe and otherworldly terrain called Great Beyond for the Great Before; a place where souls are designed and massed together before they embody a human body on earth. Joe ends up encountering Soul 22 (voiced wonderfully by Tia Fey), a not so zealous dissenter of a lost soul who rejects the notion of wanting to embody the soul of a human being. After other souls and spiritual energies in this realm guide her and Joe back to New York to save Joe’s life, the plan goes awry. I won’t reveal or spoil the details of what happens, however, everything that happens from here is amusing, satisfying, and this film will easily touch your heart and mind.
Docter and Powers (who also wrote the play to One Night in Miami and co-wrote the script to the upcoming film) do a superb job with their collaborations. The animation is vibrant, the colors and details are radiant, and it has a singular look to it. Just as Docter made a memorable character out of Joy with “Inside Out”, he also gives great wit and spirit to comedian Fey and seasoned actor Foxx. Their chemistry together offers a lot of hilarity and enthusiasm. The script (also co-wrote with Mike Jones) gives Fey some hysterical material so she can make some clever rifts on Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Carl Jung, and George Orwell. There is a tender scene involving one of Joe’s talented pupils who goes to his apartment very discouraged, who is ready to opt out of playing for good, and it’s there where Joe learns the importance of being a mentor, how one person can shape the choices of another. Meanwhile 22 is cynical about “what humans do well” because our passions can in fact bring a lot of hardship, opportunities costs, and financial suffering, yet she along with Joe begin to have stronger awakenings once they realize that talents are in fact part of the human experience. Another memorable exchange Involves Joe and 22 going to a barbershop where they both pontificate on the meaning of our existence, social ties, consciousness, purpose, and happiness as the entire barbershop is drawn into the conversation.
“Soul” at its core though is a meditation on the healing power of arts–most specifically music. Having music centered around the story, especially jazz is a wise decision considering jazz itself is a reflection of life due to its improvise and spontaneous style. With the jazz compositions written by Jon Batiste, along with a wonderful, ethereal score from “The Social Network” Oscar winners Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, who’s woozy score builds up the film’s euphoric and fanciful atmosphere. It’s up there with Emile Morresi’s outstanding score in “Kajillionaire” in being one of my favorite scores of the year.
For viewers who are looking for some bliss right now during the holidays in the midst of a global pandemic, will certainly find the comfort and elation we all need right now in these difficult times. The interaction between Joe and 22 reflect as a emblematic allegory of classical Hollywood storytelling, the Frank Capra style that would find in a film like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and many other Pixar films that manipulate viewers emotions and tug at their heartstrings, however, the film holds earned pathos and poignancy, along with a emotionally engaging characters and resonant story where the formula is fabulous and universal in appeal to viewers of all ages. Ultimately, “Soul” never gets bogged down to cloying sentimentality. If anything, it becomes a splendid expedition in cerebral and experiential ideas, and is certainly a highlight in Pixar Studio’s milieu and of the year.