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Soul Review

December 25, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Pixar Soul
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Soul Review  

Directed By: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Written By: Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers
Runtime: 100 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some language

Jamie Foxx – Joe Gardner
Tina Fey – 22
Graham Norton – Moonwind
Rachel House – Terry
Phylicia Rashad – Libba Gardner
Donnell Rawlings – Dez
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – Curley
Angela Bassett – Dorthea Williams
Daveed Diggs – Paul
Wes Studi – Counselor
Alice Braga – Counselor
Richard Ayoade – Counselor
Fortune Feimster – Counselor
Zenobia Shroff – Counselor
June Squibb – Gerol

In a year as humbling as 2020, an uplifting movie such as Pixar’s Soul is just what the doctor ordered. While Pixar has experienced ups and downs, its artisans and animators can continuously achieve technical marvels that are not only visually stimulating but tap into a purely emotional core. That achievement is nothing short of amazing. Never before has a Pixar movie been titled as perfectly as Soul.

The aptly named Joe Gardner (Foxx) is a middle-aged man at a crossroads. He’s been offered a full-time job as a music teacher at a middle school that offers him financial security and stability for the rest of his life, but it does not offer the artistic ambition that he craves. Joe wants to be a professional jazz musician, and an opportunity happens to fall into his lap that might finally offer him his big break working alongside star musician Dorothea Williams (Bassett).

Unfortunately, a tragically ironic accident sends Joe’s very soul to the great beyond. Finally, on the cusp of his big break, Joe attempts to cheat the system of the cosmic forces of the universe, landing into a realm that appears to be the very edge of creation; a whimsical place where young, burgeoning souls gain their personality and spark before they are birthed into the world. Treading where he’s not supposed to, Joe becomes the unwitting mentor to a longtime problem soul, 22 (Fey). While they may seem like the designated oddball pair often found in Pixar animated features, they are truly unlike any ever previously depicted. Directors Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers take Joe and 22 on a whimsical journey of self-discovery and finding your passion when and where you least expect it.

Soul‘s thematic use of improvisational jazz is quite apropos. It’s not only found through Joe’s passion for jazz but also in Jon Batiste’s musical jazz arrangements and the film’s script, co-written by Docter, Jones and Mike Powers. Much like a jazz arrangement, when the film’s plot offers the premise, the writers throw in some clever curveballs. The plot twists are not obtrusive, but they mix things up in a satisfyingly delightful way that’s somewhat unexpected. The plot shifts do not detract from the film’s narrative structure but only enhance it. Early on, it appears the film is set on exploring the realm of soul creation, The Great Before, aka the You Seminar, but soon there’s an adventurous shift to present-day New York City.

Soul‘s depiction of a real-life, contemporary city such as New York is striking. It’s nearly a shock to the system when the story becomes rooted in the “real world.” Pixar films usually focus on creating fictional, imaginary worlds or concepts. Even though a significant part of the film is set in New York, the animators bring the city to vivid, vibrant life.

New York City is realized from altered perspectives for 22, a soul who has never before experienced life, and Joe, who undergoes a dramatic change. The civilians who have become numb to the mundane practice of everyday life, are not able to simply sit back and enjoy the quiet beauty of the world that’s juxtaposed against Joe and 22 seeing and experiencing things for the first time or in a new way. In many ways, stepping into New York City is akin to crossing over into the monster world in Monster’s Inc. Soul displays that style with New York wonderfully.

The whole cast plays their roles perfectly. Foxx taps into charming everyman quality with Joe that’s endearing. Many can relate to the struggles and conflicts that Joe faces. Fey is impeccably cast as 22, a character who seems snarky on the surface, but she’s just waiting for that positive influence to help her to find that spark for life. The spiritual symbiosis that Joe and 22 experience throughout the story is the heart of the journey for Soul. It’s genuinely moving, poignant and bittersweet.

Besides the film’s vivid, animated realization of New York, the distinct look and visual style for Joe traveling across the metaphysical cosmos is quite unlike anything Pixar has ever depicted. The Great Before is populated by incredibly polite supervisors, all named Jerry, save for the grumpy accountant Terry (House) who is undoubtedly the scene-stealer.

These supervisors or counselors are drawn like flat, two-dimensional, hand-drawn outlines. The “soul” character models even have visual flourishes and touches that make them appear less like three-dimensional, computer-generated models. There’s also the dark realm of lost souls that’s a bit more frightening and scarier. However, all of the soul realms have a very dream-like quality. One can almost see, hear and touch the shapes but can never truly grasp them.

Even visiting the soul realm offers a shift in the musical tone. While New York is full of traditional jazz, the soul realm has a very electronic, synth-based and quirky musical style. It makes the changes to visiting these areas more distinct.

The journey of self-discovery for 22 and Joe, as directed by Kemp Powers and Pete Docter, is quite powerful. In one of the most cynical times in human history, Soul offers a profound emotional experience. Soul is both a feast for the eyes and food for the…well, you get the idea.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
With Onward, Pixar started the year on a high note. With Soul, the studio ends the year on an even better one. 25 years since the release of Toy Story, the studio is still able to create incredible, emotional journeys and new vibrant worlds. The film looks exceptional, the music sounds amazing, yet even with all the technical bells and whistles, Soul never forgets the emotional core and experience of its characters. It's a film that tells a story at a sensory level. This is another animated masterpiece that families will enjoy watching and experiencing together.