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Disney+ Review: Soul

December 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Pixar’s latest film Soul, which is premiering on Disney Plus on Christmas Day after having its theatrical release cancelled due to ongoing theatre closures, shares a lot of common DNA with the studio’s 2015 film Inside Out.

Now in case you think I’m saying that Soul feels like a copy, I’m not; both films are incredibly unique and original. They are more like spiritual cousins to each other, if you will. Where as Inside Out introduced us to the five emotions inside the mind of an adolescent girl, Soul takes us even deeper into the cosmic realm to show us the very souls that give us our personalities.

Both films also share a director in Pete Docter, who is now the Chief Creative Officer of the studio. Docter’s inspiration for the former came from watching his daughter’s personality change as she grew up, where as the genesis for Soul came from the birth of his son, whom the director noticed had a fully formed personality right from the time he was born. It’s an intriguing idea to explore where our innate personality traits come from, and the result is a film that, similar to Inside Out, is both brilliant and imaginative as well as very moving.

The main character in Soul is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher in New York City, who loves jazz music above all else and feels somewhat stuck in his teaching job. Joe’s dream is to play piano for Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at The Half-Note Jazz Club, and at the start of the film, he lands an audition and gets invited to play, only to fall into an open manhole. It’s here that the title of Soul takes on a literal quality. Joe is transported out of his body, and his anthropomorphized soul is suddenly on a mystical escalator taking him to the Great Beyond.

Not ready to give up his life on Earth, Joe jumps out of the queue. He falls through space, which provides the dazzling backdrop for the opening credits sequence, and ends up in the Great Before, a place where new souls attend something called the You Seminar and gain their personalities. It’s here that Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), an adorable but cynical young soul, who joins the pantheon of great characters that Pixar has brought to the screen. She has spent years in training but is unimpressed with what she has learned about life on Earth, opting instead to stay in the Great Before. Besides, not living means not dying, so she gets to exist forever with a steady, predictable routine.

“Is all this living really worth dying for?”, 22 questions at one point, and herein lies one of the main themes of Soul; is life merely about the avoidance of death, or about the experience of living? These are deep themes, but then again, Pixar is the studio that used the identity crisis of a plastic spork to explore existentialism in last year’s movie Toy Story 4. Joe is desperate to get back to his body and his life on Earth, but he needs 22’s help to do so, and they both get taken on a powerful journey of discovering what they really want out of life.

This is notably Pixar’s first movie with an African-American lead character, and the cultural diversity that is onscreen right from the opening scene in Joe’s public school classroom gives the film a feeling of vibrancy and authenticity that makes it feel real. It’s worth noting that Docter co-directed and co-wrote the film with African-American playwright Kemp Powers, (who also wrote One Night in Miami, another one of the year’s best movies that also happens to be arriving on Christmas), and the collaboration is quite fruitful, with Powers bringing a fresh perspective to the material.

In general, Soul might be the studio’s biggest creative swing yet, and it features some of their most abstract imagery, including the two-dimensional Counsellors who lord over the cosmic realms, which were modelled after sculptures crafted from a single piece of wire. There is also the truly terrifying image of “lost souls,” who take on extra baggage and get trapped in a desert-like zone, a powerful metaphor for people who have gotten stuck in a rut that they can’t get out of.

The film does a very good job of establishing the different worlds, with the Earth scenes and the cosmic realm both having their own distinct design styles and colour palates. The animation is visually striking throughout, with the animators doing an excellent job of mixing images that range from near-realistic to highly stylized. Both landscapes are also marked by their own musical sounds, with some beautiful new jazz compositions by Jon Batiste in the New York scenes, and an ethereal score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in the cosmic realm.

Music is an integral part of Soul, with jazz also being used as a metaphor for going with the flow and embracing the spontaneous, improvisational qualities of life. “Jazzing” is what 22 calls it, which Joe insists is not a word, but his journey involves discovering that, maybe, it is. The screenplay is very well written, including some very clever references to historical figures who have served as 22’s mentors in the Great Before. There is a George Orwell quote that made me particularly happy.

Docter, whose previous credits include Monsters Inc. and Up as well as the aforementioned Inside Out, also once again proves that he really knows how to tug on our heartstrings. Where as Inside Out made a profound statement about accepting sadness in our lives, Soul has a poignant message about enjoying the little moments, like the feel of a breeze, a falling leaf, or the smell and taste of fresh pizza.

This is a powerful and contemplative film. It took me places I didn’t expect and made me feel a lot of things, grappling with nothing less than what it means to live a meaningful life. It’s a philosophically and psychologically rich work, that lives up to the high standards that we have come to expect from Pixar and Pete Docter, with an enlightened and very wise message about enjoying our time on Earth.

Soul will be available to stream exclusively on Disney+ as of December 25th.

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