Disclaimer: Disney provided me with a screener of Soul before its release on Disney+.
Anyone who’s watched a Pixar film knows the name Pete Docter. He joined the animation studio as the company’s tenth employee and its third animator. He wrote the screenplay for Toy Story and Toy Story before going on to write and direct Monster’s Inc in 2001, became part of the Pixar Brain Trust (a small group of creative leaders who oversee the development of all movies released by Pixar), wrote and directed Up in 2009 and Inside Out (winning Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards for both films) before moving up to becoming the Vice President of Creativity and became Pixar’s chief creative office once John Lasseter stepped down in June 2018. The common throughline here is that, in the films he directs, Docter is keen to explore what makes us who we are and why we feel the way we feel sometimes.
With Soul, there is a calculated difference in how Docter directs. I could chalk it up to the fact that Pete Docter did not only direct Soul but Kemp Powers (you’ll hear more about him when I review One Night in Miami…) as well. Pixar is no stranger to co-directors. Prior to Soul, Pixar has twelve other films that have one or more co-directors. To put that in perspective, 52.17% of Pixar’s entire filmography has included one or more co-directors. So, what’s the difference? Well, the difference lies in that this is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American lead. It would help if you had someone who has lived those experiences to bring that voice to the screen. Docter doesn’t have that same experience. Docter’s directorial presence is too often felt here. He’s sufficient for the metaphysical visuals that the film requires, but I think Docter leans on the metaphysical too hard. Yes, this is a film about the soul. But Soul is also so much more than that, exploring the world of jazz and what makes us feel like we are doing what we love.
Furthermore, the script feels like it relies on the Pixar adventure film structure a bit too much. I’ve seen a lot of movies about souls this year (some I’ve reviewed and some I have not), and the way the script deals with mortality, life’s purpose, artistry, and what makes up a soul is hamfisted at best. In the film, not much time is spent on these concepts in a film that desperately needs them. Soul could have been Pixar’s first attempt at a film that sparked a discussion between parents and their older children about what they think life is about, their purpose, their feelings, and how the film made them feel. Instead, the film feels content in being another Pixar film about vague emotions and feelings that skips controversy by not taking any one particular stance on what the soul is or why we feel the way we do by not giving any hard details and spending a majority of the film trying to get to a gig.
In modern-day Queens, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher. He great at his job, inspiring the most gifted of his students, but it’s clear that all Joe wants to do is be on stage and play Jazz in front of an audience. The same day he is presented with the opportunity to work at the school full-time, he gets a chance to audition for Dorothea Williams (Angela Basset). On his way back from the audition of his life, Joe falls through a sewer hole and manages to end up in a limbo of sorts.
In this state, Joe Gardner transforms into a red, green, and blue blob with his glasses and hat and quickly finds himself on the way to what I’d imagine is the afterlife. Joe isn’t having it, though. He manages to stumble into the film’s representation of the soul’s birthplace, The Great Before, where souls get their personalities in these conch-style pavillions. Running The Great Before are the Jerrys (voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, among many others), who are visualized as these not-quite 2D line-drawing beings.
As part of Joe’s time in The Great Before, the Jerrys want Joe to mentor 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) so that she can find her “spark”, an inspiration for all souls before they can be born. The only problem is that 22 is more than comfortable spending the rest of her days in The Great Before, but when Joe ends up dragging her along Earth so that he can make that gig, hilarity ensues (with jokes and consequences very familiar to anyone who’s watched a PIXAR film in the last decade.)
Now, I know that’s a lot that I just threw at you. Don’t worry, Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, and the PIXAR Brain Trust make these heavy information dumps of philosophy and ideas about the afterlife relatively easy to understand. Think of The Great Before as a gated community – your neighbors are lovely – but they’re a bit too focused on the rules set by the home owner’s association. This is personified through Terry (voiced by Rachel House), the film’s antagonist, if there even is one. At the same time, Joe and 22 roam New York City feels lived-in and thriving, right down to the pizza rat, and is stylized in such a way as to match the caricatured character designs.
I could write a dissertation on how well PIXAR’s lighting and style tells a story about every single frame in their films, but that’s something I’ll leave to the more experienced. Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben, along with advice from Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival, and many music videos), create distinct visual styles here with the abstract look of The Great Before contrasting with the hyper-stylized New York City that is simply unparalleled to any animated film this year or last year.
On top of that, Soul has one of the best soundtracks since the original Toy Story, sporting a jazz score that quickly becomes a way Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross aid Pete Docter and Kemp Powers in telling Joe and 22’s story. It leaves room for Joe’s improvisation and for incorporating new styles based on what others play like and becomes the key to how Joe learns how to live and how he can teach 22 “what makes life worth living”.
Simultaneously, the score also finds a way into inserting itself into the film visually, paying homage to the rhythmic patterns and phrasing of jazz, hip-hop, and sometimes R&B artists, and goes as far as to include Questlove, Daveed Diggs, and Jon Batiste into the film as their own characters. Batiste composed the score along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with Batiste even shooting reference footage in order to give animators proper placement for Joe’s keystrokes in the film. Joe’s hands are animated with this flow that is simply mesmerizing to watch.
Even weeks after viewing the films, Soul‘s shine has not worn off for me. The film invites this theological and philosophical conversation about what happens when the soul is “born” and what happens when we die.
Soul is now available to Disney+ subscribers.