REEL Review – Soul (2020)

Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers | 1h 47mins | Animation, Family, Comedy

Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school teacher with a passion for Jazz, his world revolves around wanting to play piano with the greats. After he is offered the opportunity to play for Dorothy Williams, he meets his untimely end, and lands on the path to the great beyond.

Pixar’s newest feature has succumbed to the digital release that many 2020 films have been forced into. Though different from the live-action remake of Mulan, it didn’t come with a premium price-tag alongside the usual subscription cost. Soul was available for all subscribers of Disney+. But unlike the remake of an older animation, the newest outing for Inside Out (2015) co-writer/co-director Pete Docter has received a warm welcome from most of the audience, achieving the level of maturity that the best of Pixar’s filmography has to offer.

It isn’t Docter that created Soul individually, however, as co-writer Mike Jones helped to bring the story to life, and co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers brought his unique voice (fresh off of the screen adaption of his play One Night In Miami, writing both scripts), rounding out excellent leads for the story and direction. Between them, the trio managed to balance heavy philosophical ideas in a family film very well.

Jamie Foxx as Joe is a brilliant casting choice, bringing so much life and character to our lead, struggling to make it as a professional musician whilst paying the bills as a part time teacher to mostly terrible teens. His mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), tries to push him to take the full time position he’s been offered, citing his fathers failed career as a Jazz musician as the reason to essentially give up on his dreams. After getting the offer of a lifetime, he strolls through the streets of New York head held high – and falls down an open manhole and dies, an almost slapstick execution.

Joe finds himself on a moving staircase towards The Great Beyond, alongside a number of other recently deceased souls (the visual of which has clearly come from the mind of Docter – think the emotions in Inside Out meet the more abstract of lunarians from Over the Moon [2020]). He isn’t ready though, and pushes backwards, falling into The Great Before – the place where souls find their personalities before coming to Earth. Here he learns of the badges that souls gain to move on, and poses as one of the instructors tasked with helping these pre-souls prepare for life by finding their spark. Enter 22 (Tina Fey) – one of the oldest souls who has yet to find their spark, the pair decide to team up with the intention that 22 will give Joe their badge as they have no desire to live on Earth.

The heady, existential themes might be too much for some expecting a simpler animation, but in reality this is the kind of film Pixar created their reputation on.

It’s a fair amount of setup for family animation that clocks in at 1hr 40mins, but does so without rushing anything – it’s fast paced, but makes sure to not forget it’s characters and narrative along the way. Trying to keep this spoiler free, there’s a chunk where Joe and 22 get somewhat muddled and we see Joe’s life from a unique perspective. Though some of these scenes are just fun for the kids, there’s some incredibly touching moments helping Joe reevaluate what’s most important to him – his haircut with his regular barber is one of the more memorable scenes.

This is the first Pixar film centred around black characters and culture and knowing how Disney have treated this in the past put a lot of pressure on the team to make sure it was handled well, an aspect they managed to achieve with delicacy. This is successful by only making this an aspect of the film rather than the focus of the film – it’s a non-issue in reality, the characters and setting feel very organic. The character filled sequences are usually broken up by a very Pixar-esque relationship between Joe’s body and a cat, with silly misadventures and the aforementioned slapstick ensuring that the more serious aspects aren’t overwhelming and that there is still a lot of fun to be had in the ridiculous.

Even if none of this was to work for the audience, the visuals would still be an absolute delight. Almost every Pixar feature seems to go out of it’s way to be more beautiful than the last with Soul being no exception. The Great Before might seem like a great excuse to create some surreal visuals, but it’s the time on Earth that will stick with you the most. The life of the characters and setting are amplified even further by the stunning animation, every scene filled with the energy and – pardon the pun – soul of the people it represents.

That being said, The Great Before still has a lot to offer visually, the abstract soul consounsellors (all called Jerry, except the counter for The Great Beyond called Terry) seeming like a simple Piscasso drawing come to life. The cooler colours of blues and whites are a striking contrast to the warm yellows, oranges, and blacks that fill life on Earth.

The heady, existential themes might be too much for some expecting a simpler animation, but in reality this is the kind of film Pixar created their reputation on. Joe’s lack of meaning in his life won’t resonate with it’s younger audience, but it’s essentially saying that it’s fine to not know what you’re going to do and just enjoy the little things – to just enjoy life, a notion that’s lost in the early years of our lives.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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