Soul Review: One of Pixar’s finest

Pete Docter’s latest is a massively creative feat of world building

Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, and Angela Bassett

Death. It’s a pretty big word for something with only five letters. Yet, Pixar is no stranger to tackling weighty topics: themes of loss have punctuated Coco, Up and most recent production Onward. There tends to be a universality to Pixar’s most popular releases, ignoring its massive tendency towards producing multiple sequels that fare well at the box office but don’t test the studio to the boundaries of their artistic potential.

Soul provides the audience with Pixar’s first African American protagonist: Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx). A put-upon band teacher by day, he secretly harbours the passion to pursue his own jazz music that he never quite had the confidence to do before, not helped by the pressure of his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad) to settle for a safe, dependable living. Everything appears to be looking up for Joe, however, when he lands himself a gig playing piano with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). He is so elated at this development, in fact, that he wanders straight into a manhole to his apparent death.

Joe then finds himself on the glowing walkway to the abyss that is the Great Beyond. Eager to get back to the realm of the living, Joe happens upon the Great Before: a sort of boot camp for souls yet to be sent to earth, in which a variety of soul counsellors known as Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade, amongst others). In order to get back to Earth, Joe needs soul 22 (Tina Fey). Few instructors in the past have been able to equip 22 with the “spark” necessary for her to travel down to Earth, including Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln, and 22 themselves see little point in living. Joe plans to give 22 the spark so that he can take her place back on Earth and complete what he views as his own purpose. In typical Pixar style, this doesn’t exactly go to plan, and likely has a sizeable impact upon the profundity of this piece in general, though this film still has plenty to say about the meaning of existence.

Pete Docter, who co-wrote and directed Soul, is a veteran at Pixar, having overseen projects right the way back to Toy Story in 1995. His previous outings, Up and Inside Out have much in common with this latest film. Inside Out manages to make a massive existential accessible to a wider audience through its unique representation through animation. In Inside Out, this was the construction of personality, and how one’s emotions and personality were tied together and informed by the world around them. Soul takes this somewhat further, revealing that elements of a personality are formed even before existence. They both give personality and personhood to the abstract concepts of nature vs nurture; a humanhood to concepts that are beyond conscious understanding. Similarly, Up and Soul both feature its protagonists realising that their understanding of the meaning of life is wrong, even if the circumstances through which they come to this realisation is anything but usual.

With so many gorgeous animations being produced these days, it’s easy to become desensitised in a way to the CGI renderings. The animation here really is hard to notice at times, which is to its credit. Through the film, there are two distinct animation styles that help to distinguish the mortal world from the metaphysical. New York when depicted is absolutely gorgeous, almost photorealistic in the way that it plays with light and has such incredible detail.

In contrast, the Great Before delights in the abstract. It replaces the super-detailed surroundings with delightfully washed and blurred backgrounds. The souls themselves are rendered as cute, spherical blobs, their main expression coming from their faces. The soul counsellors, and soul counter, are also delightfully achieved as Picasso-esque line figures. When the two collide, the result is truly spectacular. Aiding the contrast between the two is the use of two groups of musicians to provide the score. While New York City is aided by a bustling, jazz-infused soundtrack by Jon Batiste, the metaphysical instrumentals were composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which really gives the two areas a distinct soundscape.

The world building in general is absolutely sublime. The entire concept of the Great Before is a life affirming and heartening concept in itself, let alone the ultimate message of the film, which is that life isn’t simply about achieving a dream or about a singular events, but rather that living has value in itself. It’s important not to lose sight of the journey by focussing only on the destination, and forget the beauty in simply where you are. It’s through 22 that Joe realises this and, ultimately, so too does the viewer. It’s all about being present in where you are, not fantasising about what the journey or destination is. Joe needs to live his truth, and live his dream, but not be wrapped up in the achievement or where that’s going, as that’s something that he has no control over. It’s summed up perfectly by a quote given early in the film by Dorothea Williams:

I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to an older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.”

“The ocean?” The older fish says, “That’s what you’re in right now.”

“This,” says the young fish, “this is water. What I want is the ocean!”

Ultimately, Soul does try to shoehorn in a lot of bigger picture things that likely go over the head of the younger viewers, while also strays a little far from its brilliant opening into some roundabout slapstick comedy moments. Still, the depths of its ambition should be commended, and its sheer creativity is definitely worthy of applause. While more profound than it is emotional, Soul likely won’t have you sobbing on the sofa, but will give you plenty to think about.

Soul is streaming now on Disney+

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