“Soul” stars Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, and Angela Bassett. Released on Disney+ on December 25, 2020, the film is about a music teacher who accidentally gets transported to the land of souls.
The film is directed by Pete Docter, who also directed “Monsters, Inc.”, “Up”, and “Inside Out”. How do you want to spend your life? That’s the question that’s been on our minds ever since we arrived on Earth, and what better way to represent this question than with the magic of Disney and Pixar. Originally scheduled for a summer release, the film fell victim to the pandemic curse and had to settle for a fall/winter release. Seeing that the theaters weren’t going to be reopened in time for its big screen debut, Disney decided to go with a much different approach, and that approach is releasing it straight to Disney+ on Christmas Day at no extra cost, making this the first Pixar film to not have a wide theatrical release. So for those who are worried that it’s going to get the “Premier Access” treatment like the “Mulan” remake, worry no more. Even though I was disappointed that I won’t be able to see this latest Pixar film on the big screen, I was still extremely excited to see it regardless, mostly due to Pete Docter’s involvement. Docter’s track record as a director so far is nothing but fantastic as he had already directed three original films for Pixar that became critical and commercial successes. In terms of the reviews it got, it looks like this film is already on its way to become the next Pixar classic. Now that it’s here, is it soulful enough to earn this title? Let’s find out.
The film tells the tale of Joe Gardner (Foxx), a middle school music teacher who dreams of performing jazz music onstage with the other musicians, including jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Bassett). After impressing them during an opening act, he finally gets the opportunity to make his dream come true. However, an untimely accident causes Joe’s soul to be separated from his body and wound up on the path towards the Great Beyond. He managed to escape to the Great Before, a realm where souls develop personalities, quirks, and traits before being sent to Earth. In order to get back to his own body, Joe would have to teach the souls in training about the values of life, including 22 (Fey), a soul who has a much different perspective on the concept. The film has the Pixar team once again exploring one of the main qualities that make us humans tick. Docter’s last film, “Inside Out”, represents a person’s emotions and how each of their roles are equally important in their everyday life. In “Soul”, the main focus is placed on…well, people’s souls. Souls that define who we are as well as our interests. This is Pixar’s way of teaching young viewers about life and death through creativity and animation, but more importantly, it teaches them about the true purpose of our existence. With the assistance of co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers (the man behind the 2013 play One Night in Miami), Pete Docter was able to place this story within the African-American culture, which showcased the continuous strength of Pixar’s support for diversity. It didn’t follow in the same shoes as “Coco” when it comes to the narrative’s structure, but it’s suitable enough to let other filmmakers know that we need more animated films that showcase all types of cultures. As for the film itself, well, it’s actually no surprise that it has a big enough soul to stand alongside some of Pixar’s top-tier classics like “Toy Story” and even “Inside Out”. The story was basically simple like many other Pixar films that came before it, but it’s told in a way that the animation studio is known for since its inception. It’s fun, endearing, and colorful for the kids, but it’s also meaningful, thought-provoking, and emotional for the adults. Pete Docter is known for his ability to showcase the realities of life in an imaginative and thoughtful way without dumbing things down for the young viewers like most animated films do nowadays, which made his past two films, “Up” and “Inside Out”, beloved classics to begin with. I’m glad to see that his ability still remains undefeated thanks to his direction and a smartly-written screenplay by Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers. The characters also remain as one of Pixar’s strongest points not just because of how memorable and charming they are, but also because of how relatable and heartfelt they are, and Joe Gardner (who is voiced marvelously by Jamie Foxx) happens to be one of those characters. He’s likable enough to take me on his personal journey to rediscover his true purpose in life. Tina Fey was also great in her role as 22. Her character was able to balance her dim and snarky personality with some pretty effective humor without making herself a bane of one’s existence. The next element I really want to mention is the film’s animation. Wow, where do I even start? Everything about it was pure Pixar magic, including its detailed settings, the jazz sequences, and the ingenious character designs. The New York setting looked absolutely stunning from start to finish. The lighting and the realistic details on…well, pretty much everything helped made the setting look and feel like actual New York. For the humans characters, the animators made an effort to make sure that they don’t appear as “stereotypical” because as you can already tell, the world of animation has its share of issues when it comes to racist imagery. I thought they did a nice job with how they design the characters, especially Joe Gardner. These characters are distinct enough to make themselves look like actual people. The animators really knocked it out of the park with this one. Then we have the “Great Beyond”, which is Pixar’s version of the afterlife, and the “Great Before”, and they were also beautiful to look at, but not as much as the animation for New York. They definitely have that unique sense of creativity on how these elements are presented, similar to what “Inside Out” did with the human mind, which helped provide a good amount of world-building and a strong metaphoric essence within those realms. I also loved the designs of the souls and the soul counselors in general, especially the latter due to their own animation style compared to the rest of the characters. The souls themselves were definitely something that only the artists from Pixar could come up with, and I wasn’t disappointed with the final result. The music is also something that I have to talk about because it sounded incredible. The original score was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the same team who created music for some of David Fincher’s works, including the recently released “Mank”, but it also featured jazz music from musician Jon Batiste in order to fit the authenticity of its jazzy setting. The score had its own sense of energetic flair and emotion behind the given tracks, especially the jazz sections, which were my favorite parts of “Soul”. This might be one of the best scores I had ever heard in an animated film in my opinion, let alone a Pixar film.
Overall, “Soul” is pure Pixar poetry, proving once again that the animation studio can’t be beat when it comes to originality. Pete Docter has delivered another thoughtful and beautiful animated gem that respectively showcases one of the aspects of life and represents strong storytelling through the art of animation. With its well-developed characters, a superb story, stunning animation, and some great music, the film shows that it really has a soul. This is not only the best animated film I’ve seen so far this year, but it’s also one of the best films of 2020 in my opinion. It’s available to watch on Disney+, so make sure you grab your family members and check it out as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed.