'Soul' Is Another Innovative and Introspective Journey for Pixar
It's about jazz... and life.
For essentially as long as it has been in existence, Pixar has been the home of existential children's entertainment. The Toy Story franchise has become about the very idea of person- (or toy-) hood. Wall-E is a space ballet about isolation and what we owe society. Inside Out tracks the emotions inside a little girl's head to tell a tale about the sadness of maturity. And now there's Soul (out on Disney+ on Christmas Day), which is maybe Pixar's most nuanced and introspective movie yet. Its lessons are subtle, but couched within some of the most wondrous animation the company has ever produced.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the latter of whom is also responsible for the screenplay of One Night in Miami, Soul focuses on Joe, a middle-aged pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx. Joe is unenthused with his job teaching middle school kids for cash, and longs to make a career out of gigging. He gets the chance of a lifetime when one of his former students, now a professional drummer (Questlove), offers him a chance to play with the well-known saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe gets the job and, in his joy, falls into a pothole and dies.
He's transported to essentially a vast escalator, surrounded by emptiness, leading to "The Great Beyond," where he'll be dead forever. Resisting his fate, he plummets to "The Great Before," a land of unborn souls, who are molded before being sent off to Earth. Mistaken for a renowned child psychologist, Joe is assigned to mentor 22 (Tina Fey) a problematic tyke who refuses to find her "spark" and therefore be born. Both Joe and 22 decide to use each other for selfish aims: 22 doesn't want to leave The Great Before, so if Joe helps her find her spark, she'll just let him go in her place.
Where Soul gets philosophically interesting is just what exactly that "spark" is. At first glance, it seems something like a passion or talent. Joe thinks he can pass his enthusiasm for piano and music onto 22, thus solving the problem. But Docter, Jones, and Powers don't view life as simply as that, nor do they assume everyone on the planet is a virtuoso.
Toggling between the two worlds, Soul finds a near extraordinary visual and sonic landscape. Its New York is arguably the most fully realized city the animators have ever produced, a near-photorealistic recreation of busy streets populated with human characters that are cartoons, but have a mass to them that other depictions of people in Pixar movies have lacked. Here, the predominant sounds are blares of jazz, composed by Jon Batiste, melded with a chorus of human chatter.
In the Greats Beyond and Before, Batiste's enthusiastic score is replaced by the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, electronic and soaring, where notes don't end—they just extend. Similarly, the animation is untethered to any earthly weight. The color palette morphs into a series of blues and blacks, and the world quite literally flattens. The afterlife is governed by creatures called Jerrys and Terrys (voiced, marvelously, by the likes of Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Richard Ayoade, and Rachel House). They aren't stick figures, instead comprised of looping two-dimensional neon lines, reminiscent of Adventure Time's planar wish master Prismo, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani. One gets the sense that the Pixar animators were allowed to play in an experimental sandbox that had been previously off limits.
There is, of course, the question of what an actual kid would get out of any of this. Soul comes off as Pixar's most aloof film, one that's less connected to the fears of childhood than those that creep up later in life when the pain of not reaching your goals and dreams cuts deeper. There are goofy creations and—without spoiling too much—eventually Joe ends up inhabiting the body of a cat yielding some funny scenarios, but there's no real "let's sell some toys" energy to any part of the film.
Soul doesn't have any easy message. Despite all the talk about dreams, it's not about following them. Joe learns something, but it's just as complicated and special as existence itself.
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