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Film Review: Soul

29 December 20 words: Jamie Morris

Pixar's latest feature film is a last-minute addition to the ranks of the best 2020 has to offer, says Screen section co-editor Jamie Morris...

Directors: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
Running time: 106 minutes

Soul’s road to life has been as rocky as you’d expect from any film released in the latter half of 2020. Originally slated for a theatrical debut in June, it was pushed back to November, had its Cannes world premiere cancelled and only briefly graced the big screen at the BFI London Film Festival before being moved exclusively to streaming and billed as “a Disney+ original” on Christmas Day. It’s a huge shame that this had to be the first Pixar production to miss out on a wide theatrical release - right from the jump, Soul is one of the most visually stunning works in the entire Pixar catalogue, going as close as you can get to photorealistic CG animation without venturing into the more uncanny territory of movies like The Polar Express (2004) and Mars Needs Moms (2011).

The film begins in a vivid, lifelike classroom, where music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is attempting to convince his pupils of the beauty of jazz music. But Joe has his eyes set beyond the chalkboard and chairs, with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps and joining a jazz quartet. Shortly after, in one of the film’s most beautifully-animated scenes - and there are a lot - we see Joe demonstrate his talent on the piano to saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), who agrees to let him play with her band at a gig scheduled for that evening. Alas, Joe’s celebrations come to a halt when he falls down an open manhole and dies, in a moment that almost feels like a self-parody of Pixar’s many tragic opening scenes.

This kicks off Joe’s journey through the unexplored realms beyond the mortal plane: the Great Beyond and the Great Before. Through these concepts, director Pete Docter expands the playful curiosity we saw in Inside Out (2015) into a philosophical deep-dive, mediating on the origins of the soul and the purpose of life. It’s far more complex than you’d expect from any animated blockbuster released in the West, and seems to be tailored towards Pixar’s adult following rather than its typical younger audience.

If you were to relate Soul’s story structure to a jazz composition, it’d be bebop. Beats fly by at a breakneck pace, and in just the first half Docter gives us his two cents on the origins of temperament and talent, where gifted people go when they die, what happens to our souls during moments of creativity, and the distinction between mind and body. It’s all conveyed just about well enough for it not to feel rushed, but it leaves the viewer with a lot to mull over while the film is still running, and is by no means a passive viewing experience.

There’s an abundance of joyful creativity on display in Soul that can’t be denied

Across all of its messaging and execution, Soul is optimistic and uncynical. Its carefully-crafted urban locales highlight the beauty of our everyday surroundings, and a set of wonderfully unique and diverse character designs celebrate human individuality. The film’s visual language is also kept fresh with regular trips to and from the contrastingly abstract astral plane. Inside Out still holds an advantage over its spiritual successor by being conceptually and narratively tighter, allowing for more immediate emotional impact, but there’s an abundance of joyful creativity on display in Soul that can’t be denied.

That being said, with more complexity comes greater margin for error, and there are a few wrong notes played here and there. Prior to the wide release of the film, some critics pointed out that casting white actor Tina Fey as ‘22’ - an unborn soul with no desire to live - was a misstep in a post-Get Out (2017) world. Much of the film revolves around a body-swap scenario in which 22 is piloting Joe’s body and her voice is coming out of his mouth, which comes across as more than a little bit jarring and could easily have been remedied by casting a black woman instead. This plot device also means there are relatively few scenes where Joe is in charge of his own body, casting doubt over whether you can actually call this Pixar’s first fully black-led film.

Fortunately, casting problems end there. Jamie Foxx is predictably great in the lead role, serving as the final piece to Joe’s formation as a believable and fully-realised protagonist. The supporting cast also continues to flesh out the Soul world, with Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Graham Norton and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs providing just a few of the many enjoyable performances throughout. The most powerful sequence in the film, however, unfolds silently against the backdrop of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ new-age score, which is as key to Soul’s storytelling as any of its dialogue. 

Soul sets out to achieve a lot and succeeds at almost all of it. Whilst ever so slightly too ambitious for its own good, it’s still undoubtedly among Pixar’s best, which is no small feat when you’re standing amongst some of the finest animated works ever made. Very few family-friendly films will leave you with so much to think about.

Did you know? Co-writer Mike Jones said the works of Studio Ghibli inspired his creative process when working on the film, opting for some scenes to have no dialogue in order to let the visuals speak for themselves.

Soul is available now on Disney+

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