Soul Film Review: Pixar Near to Its Best With Pre-Life Existential Romp

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Deep into Soul — the new Pixar film out on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar — protagonist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) achieves what he has been waiting his whole life for. Those are literally his words, not mine, but Joe isn’t anywhere close as happy as he expected to be. It’s unforeseen for Soul too. Most films, once they set a goal, send heroes on a journey on which they encounter obstacles, before arriving at their destination with new values. But Soul goes a step further and questions all of it. What’s the journey worth? What must you be willing to give in pursuit of the goal? And what whether we are moving towards the mistaken destination? In other words, Soul is interested in pondering the meaning of life — the biggest question of all of them.

That’s particularly ambitious for an lively film, but Pixar has never been one to shy absent from a challenge. And it has got the correct man at the helm to help tackle just that: Pete Docter, who up to now directed Within Out (a in a similar fashion ambitious film approximately the importance of all emotions), Up (tackling death and processing grief), and Monsters, Inc. (parenting with using fear). Docter also wrote Soul with Kemp Powers (also co-director) and Mike Jones. Soul has some pretty interesting things to say approximately the fine line between being passionate and being consumed by it. And how society has a tendency to conflate ardour with purpose, which ends up in some people single-mindedly striving for a goal without any take care of those around them, while others feel entirely vain.

We are routinely told that we don’t seem to be worth anything whether we should not have a purpose in life. Soul tackles that thinking. It says that there is more to life than chasing your ambition, and that our purpose is to help others on their journey, inspiring them and being a positive force. From the contrary perspective, Soul remarks that what people say affects us, influences us, and can limit us. We wish to surround ourselves with those who empower us and not put us down, find people who consider in you and push you and do not try to teach you how to live. Words can cut deep, as a late-game scene in Soul shows, and stop us from living the life we wish and being who we’re meant to be. It’s steady old living that is the purpose, and that is the reason the exciting part.

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Soul opens with Joe, a middle school band teacher who is unsatisfied with how his career is gone. It’s why he is unhappy when he is offered a permanent position at the school. This isn’t how he imagined his life would go. Joe expected to develop into a touring jazz pianist, but his big break never came. At some point, out of the blue, his former student Curley (Questlove) calls him to fill in for a last-minute emptiness at a concert for a renowned fictional jazz musician and saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe impresses Dorothea with a surprise solo as he is carried absent by the possibility, and she asks him to go back for rehearsals later that day. Elated, Joe runs out totally clueless of his environment, and falls into an open gutter.

What would be a pivot to a hospital becomes a cue for Soul to spin a metaphysical tale. Joe discovers that he is arrived in The Great Beyond, the movie’s equivalent of heaven. There, he panics and tries to receive out — it is a surprise that not more people are panicking like Joe — but only manages to fall down into The Great Before, which he is told is the place where souls get their personalities before they arrive on Soil in a body. Joe is inadvertently chosen as a mentor for soul number 22 (Tina Fey, who wrote some of her own lines), who has up to now been mentored by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali, Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Antoinette, and Carl Jung but is still stuck in The Great Before. This makes for some great throwaway jokes on Soul.

22 has no intention of living on Soil, which in turn ends up in a sullen attitude that she carries all over. But that changes after Joe reveals who he in point of fact is. Joe then hitches a plan with the assistance of 22 to receive back to Soil and into his body, which 22 is on board with because it would intent she can merrily stay in The Great Before perpetually. 22 is very happy to be stuck in limbo.

The Great Before is imagined as a comedic place filled with wise yet goofy managers. They’re called Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade among others) and they talk in very calming voices. They’re all very amicable yet still enjoy banter with their counterparts from The Great Beyond, particularly a sure Terry (Rachel House) who assists in keeping count of souls. After Joe escapes from The Great Beyond, Terry starts an investigation into who the lacking soul is, by alphabetically having a look through all souls that have ever existed. The prank is clearly aimed at bureaucracy but it’s shocking that The Great Beyond hasn’t developed a better system than this.

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22 and Joe alongside 3 Jerrys, and Terry in Soul
Photo Credit: Disney/Pixar

Soul takes the most minimalist of approaches to animating The Great Before, with the souls represented as little more than blobs with no distinguishing features, their immortal caretakers (the Jerrys) sketched via outlines only, and with a soothing blue and green colour palette to match. The movie’s background score is upended to match the new surroundings. Jon Batiste’s feet-tapping jazz compositions and arrangements are gone, and replaced with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ otherworldly synthesised score that signals curiosity and mystery. All the way through the transition to The Great Before, Soul takes a bold leap with its visuals, as the on-screen lines pulse to match the beats.

That boldness is matched in the movie’s almost all-Black voice cast, a first for a Pixar film. Along with Fox, Questlove, Bassett, and Ayoade, Soul also features the voices of Phylicia Rashad (as Joe’s mother), Daveed Diggs (as Joe’s nemesis), and Donnell Rawlings (as Joe’s barber). It’s diverse beyond that too. The aforementioned Braga is Brazilian and House has Māori ancestry, while the Local American star Wes Studi could also be involved. Soul isn’t as diverse at the back of the scenes though (co-director Powers is Black, but everyone else is white). More importantly, it engages with Black culture through its focus on jazz, centre to the Black experience, but it is usually universal elsewhere as it affects a mother–son relationship, or in the father–daughter bond between Joe and 22.

Where the movie at times lacks is in delivering moment-to-moment delights and being in point of fact transcending. That said, it does deliver some existential zingers, like “You’ll be able to’t crush a soul here. That is what life on Soil is for.” And though it would possibly not touch the highs of Docter’s Within Out, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable romp, one that’s willing to ask such big questions of its characters (and in turn, the audience), and upend the tried-and-tested a story constitution. Pixar has been too engaged churning out sequels and prequels (Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2, Cars 3, and Finding Dory) because of a mandate from Disney, and unfortunately, its recent original efforts haven’t been as good (Onward and The Good Dinosaur, though Coco was once better), but with Soul, Pixar is near to its best.

Soul releases Christmas Day on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar. It’s out 1:30pm IST in India.

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