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SOUL (2020) review

December 23, 2020


written by: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers
produced by: Dana Murray
directed by: Pete Docter
rated: PG for thematic elements and some language
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2020 (Disney+)


The talented folks at Pixar are at their best when they’re working on something original, something different and new. That’s not to say that their sequels haven’t been good. (They definitely have, but not all of them, mind you). It’s just that the movies that’ve gotten me to lean in a little closer are the ones that aren’t sequels, but rather original works that have impressed me with their artistic brilliance, touched my heart in just the right way, of maybe even found me thinking about my own life in a different way. That’s certainly the case with Peter Docter’s “Soul”, an animated feature which has some notable first for the studio.

“Soul” marks the very first time the studio is revolving a movie’s story around a black character and since that character is middle-aged, one could say this is the first feature aimed at adults. Sure, there’s some funny situations and moments that all ages can get on board with, but it’s safe to say that this shouldn’t be a child’s first Pixar movie…after all, the protagonist does die within the first fifteen minutes.



That’s not a spoiler considering that’s what you’ll find in the marketing and it’s also kind of hinted at in the title (which has a double meaning considering the protagonist is a musician). Indeed, most of the story by Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers, sees the main character’s soul spending a fair amount of time trying to make sense of the afterlife, a surreal landscape called “The Great Before” here.

Before he unexpectedly winds up separated from his body, we meet New York City middle-school music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he does his best to withstand the cacophony coming from the band he’s conducting as they butcher Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. It’s understandably hard for Joe to instill in these students a love for music, specifically jazz, but he nevertheless tries. Joe’s passion for jazz is evident, as the pianist disappears into a zone, while trying to show the kids the transformative ways of the music.

A few minutes later, Joe is told that the school is offering this position of his full-time with benefits, which is something he should be happy about, certainly his worrisome mother (Phylicia Rashad) is. The problem is Joe has always desired to work full-time as a jazz pianist, a career that has never really taken off yet. Later that day, an opportunity comes that’s two good to pass up. One of his former students, Curly (Questlove), lets him know there is suddenly an opening in the quartet with local saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) for a gig later that night. Joe immediately (and nervously) auditions and nails it and is offered the position right then and there. He accepts without hesitation and a jubilant Joe makes his way back to his apartment to get ready for the gig, but he falls into an open manhole while crossing the street and dies.



The thing is, Joe doesn’t realize what has transpired until he’s in this place that’s surrounded by darkness save for a bright light shining in the distance. When Joe, who is now a luminescent blue form with hat and glasses (a trademark look of his back on Earth), realizes the conveyor belt-like platform he shares with other silent souls is heading to the light (although it sounds like a giant bug zapper), Joe does the math and, realizing that light is The Great Beyond, frantically turns around and runs in the opposite direction.

He falls and lands in a strange and trippy location he learns is called The Great Before. It’s not heaven and it’s not hell and it’s not The Beyond. This is the place where souls are given personality traits and then assigned to humans below at some point before birth. Realizing this, Joe desperately tried to hitch a ride back to Earth with one of these souls, so he can get back into his body and play that gig. It’s not fair that he was taken away right before his potential big break and now he’ll do anything he can to get back in his body, which he learns is lying near-death in a hospital bed.

Before he knows it, Joe is scuttled away by one of several soul counselors, all named Jerry (voiced by the likes of Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, and Fortune Feimster), and assigned as a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a belligerent soul who’s been around forever and refuses to find her “spark” and join humanity. 22 doesn’t see the pain and struggles of humanity worth it and instead opts to float around as a wayward soul. Joe has no choice but to convince 22 that life is worth it and embarks on a complicated journey with the reluctant soul back to life. However, Joe’s soul missing from the ranks of The Great Beyond hasn’t gone unnoticed and soon, Terry (a hilarious Rachel House) the counter, is hot on the trail of Joe’s soul, determined to return him to his rightful place.



What is immediately most impressive about “Soul” is the detailed creativity applied to the movie’s visual aesthetic. While grounded on the streets of a New York City burrough, the animators deliver a rich and authentic looking locations where light hits dust (cinematographer Bradford Young worked as a lighting consultant on the film) and each environment has an amazing lived-in quality to it, whether it be the interiors of Joe’s classroom to his the tailor shop where his mother works. A pivotal scene in the movie’s third act, is a jaw-dropping tracking shot of a street scene that anyone would typically take for granted. Docter and his crew take their time with it though and gently land their intentions, leading to a wonderful awakening for both Joe and the viewer. It’s one of the best cinematic moments of 2020.

Another memorable and visually-striking scene takes place in a neighborhood barber shop that Joe frequents. He stops in there in order to spruce himself up for his big gig and thanks to screenwriter Kemp Powers – who added this scene in the screenplay in order to offer a definitively black space to the movie – what we are given is a place that is richly inhabited with such authenticity and convincing realness that I almost forgot I was watching an animated feature. It felt like I just walked into a place that exists and has a discernible history.

These moments on earth, before and after the manhole mishap, are primarily accompanied by great jazz compositions from Jon Batiste (with some assistance from Corey Chestnutt) and really solidify how meaningful jazz is to Joe, especially since an affinity for the music was passed down from his late father. Batiste includes a lively version of The Impressions’ “It’s Alright” that fits right in with the tone of the movie.



“Soul” looks and sounds decidedly different when the story goes off world, with ethereal and vaporous beings realized in wild and unique ways and an experimental techno-synth score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, that accentuates the dream-like quality of a psychedelic landscape. The linear characters look like bent wire hanger figures come to life and the kind of beings that would be buried in the recesses of our own dreamscape.

Some of the ideas in The Great Before are reminiscent of “Inside Out” and that makes sense considering Docter wrote and directed that Pixar gem, but the details here feel much more thought out and complex. In fact, upon initial viewing, it was kind of a challenge to follow the machinations of how things work in this before-life. Considering I plan on watching this over and over, I’m hoping multiple viewings will smooth some story details out. While the story does seem quite heavy and existential, there is boy-swapping silliness involving a hospital comfort cat and Joe’s physical form that thankfully never steps into broadness or outweighs its welcome.

The story also offers a subplot involving a character named Moonwind (Graham Norton), who’s duty is to help gather distracted Lost Souls and who somehow has the ability to navigate between the real world and the ocean of The Great Beyond. His introduction in that nebulous environment is to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues”, which I found to be quite hilarious, but how his human form on Earth is realized as a street sign twirler is another impressive animated feat. I’d love to know where the inspiration for that character came from.

Overall, their is a palpable feeling of real-life concerns and anxieties in “Soul” and it balances it all out with feelings of euphoria and joy as well. It’s a deep movie, that is never dark. There is a sense of wonder and warmth throughout, all while longings for life fulfillment meander underneath it all. Contemplative and awe-inspiring, the movie can entertain mostly all ages, but primarily speaks to those artists out there who aren’t yet making ends meet by following their passion. The best thing “Soul” does is make us appreciate who and what we have right outside our front door (as opposed to who or what is absent in our lives), which is a timeless message, but also something we need to be reminded of right now.



RATING: ****



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