2020 | PG | Animation | starring VO Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Daveed Diggs | directed by Peter Doctor and Kemp Powers | 1 hr 40 mins |
Pixar movies used to all be events. Now they’ve divided and conquered occasionally producing a B-string film or sequel to go along with their heavy hitter. A Cars 3 or The Good Dinosaur for the young ones and an Inside Out and Up for the older crowd. This year we had the fun but B-string Onward while we waited for their winter release Soul, which once again takes us into the afterlife (Coco) and the ethereal from director Peter Doctor (Up, Inside Out). It’s not a Pixar home run, but it’s almost there – a lush, witty, imaginative, beautifully animated and wonderful film to add to the cannon.
Is Soul even a movie you’d show a young kid? I don’t know. It’s a heavy comedy about life and death and dreams deferred. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a high school music teacher who finally gets his big break, an opportunity to play a gig with the legendary Dorothy Williams (Phylicia Rashad) and promptly dies in an accident. Desperate to get back to Earth he escapes and wanders into several layers of the afterlife and meets body-less souls including 22 (Tina Fey) a rebel soul reluctant to be sent to the world of humans. Together the two traverse the afterlife and Brooklyn, New York to reunited Joe’s soul with his body.
All Pixar movies have excellent, warm, detailed animation that appears to go the extra mile to create challenges for themselves. No bland white snowy landscapes here. This time they render both crowded New York streets and the afterlife into warm reality. In New York we get Joe’s passion for jazz music, beautifully brought to life as Pixar did for cooking in Ratatouille. In the afterlife we get a universe of 2 dimensional line creatures, an escalator to the light, a Great Before, where souls find their personalities and a Lost Souls wasteland where humans on Earth trapped in dead-end desk jobs and slowly lose their passion waste away in a black sandy desert. Doctor plays with form here a couple of times, mixing animation styles as he did with Inside Out and the script is sharp with Pixar’s over-the-head wit. There is a Carl Jung joke in here only Pixar would even attempt.
Doctor’s story follows Pixar’s usual anti-Hollywood story construction, which at a snappy pace reveals new layers to the films reality and complications in Joe’s journey around every corner. The movie writes itself into corners that make it unclear where it will go or how it will wrap up. Doctor walks a fine tight-rope here, not shying away from the reality of death as well as a life that lives without purpose while at the same time keeping the film light and fun, stocking it with pirate ships, wacky characters and talking cats. It manages to be both light and heavy in equal measure.
The other big break in the Pixar formula here is the music. Instead of a Randy Newman or Michael Giacchino classical score, Doctor goes with a more downbeat synth score from Trent Reznor Atticus Ross that fits the otherworldly proceedings perfectly.
Worth seeing for the animated ingenuity alone, Soul is a beautiful celebration of jazz and a layered story that doesn’t just talk about life and death, but the harder difference between life and living. One of the best movies of the year.