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NOC Review: ‘Soul’ is Pixar’s Jazzy Spark of Imagination, Inspiration, and Beauty

How does one define living or existence? Where do these meaningful drives that we get, or the desires we have – those moments of inspiration and wonder where we try to reach out and define the purposes we make for ourselves in our own lives — where do they all come from, and why do we have them? We can’t possibly quantify such things, or even explain what and why they are, but we still know inside they’re there; an indelible and innate part of us that, if nothing else, creates the full mosaic we know to be the individual human experience. For any film or studio to depict visually, conceptually what these ideas and notions that possess us are, let alone what they mean, would be seemingly impossible.

Then there’s Pixar, who comes along and says, “Hold my beer!” Thus, we now have Soul.

Not only does Pixar accept the challenge here, however, but director/co-writer Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out), and his team of brilliant geniuses have depicted perhaps the quintessential vision of the personified experience of living and what lies beyond (that we’ve seen on film anyway). Now, we’ve seen Pixar tackle such stories before (for what are classics like Up, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, The Incredibles, or Toy Story if not tales about the existential crisis of the human condition), but the philosophy behind this was never the central focus of their previous films. The result is one of the most ambitious and beautiful projects I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a long time.

Soul is a gorgeous, deep, inspiring film about, essentially, the meaning of life. It might give a visual answer to questions like “where do we go after we die,” but the best thing about it is the questions it raises about what we do now while we’re alive, and why it matters. With Soul, Pixar uses all of the tools in its creative toolbox, including its ability to break the rules of animation conventions, to depict the joy of living. Uplifting, creative, funny, and heartfelt — Soul is one of the first Pixar movies we’ve seen in a long time that truly lives up to the reputation the studio has garnered these past few decades for being the most ambitious masters in the filmmaking.

The film centers on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged jazz enthusiast who is currently living his life as a part-time jazz instructor in a middle school in New York City. Joe’s biggest dream is to become a world class jazz pianist, and gets his shot after nailing the audition of a lifetime, but it tragically (yet still hilariously) gets cut short after he falls into a manhole, and is about to be escorted into The Great Beyond. Unable to cope with the idea that he has been cheated out of his dream, he makes a break for it, and winds up (during a gorgeously stunning animated sequence) in a place called The Great Before (a.k. a “The Youth Seminar”) where souls get their personalities before being sent to Earth. This is what defines what makes a person, say, a doctor who is passionate about helping others versus a megalomaniac with dreams of world domination. It’s in The Great Before that Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has for centuries been unable to find her “spark” and go to Earth, despite having some of the greatest mentors at her disposal (hilarious cutaways to her time with Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln ensue). If Joe is able to help 22 find her spark, she can get an Earth badge, which she can give to Joe for him to go back to Earth before his dream gig passes.

Foxx and Fey (which sounds like an amazing idea for a buddy cop TV series, btw), are AMAZING in this! Foxx brings so much heart and passion into the character of Joe, but it’s really Fey that stole the show for me as the cynically hilarious 22. Fey’s performance was, for me, the soul of Soul (yes, now I’m just being obnoxious with the wordplay), generating the most laughs for me with her delivery of witty lines reflecting on the foibles of humanity, while still turning in some of the film’s most beautiful and touching moments. The character is so well written, and serves as a catalyst for Joe’s ultimate character arc just from these small moments of her enjoying life – from a slice of pizza to a leaf in the wind soaring. Foxx’s performance is also fantastic, from his enthusiastic monologues about jazz as a passion, to the heartfelt and cathartic moments he shares with his mother (voiced by Phylicia Rashad). His chemistry with Fey is a tremendous success.

In addition to the fantastic vocal work, Soul‘s biggest star is arguably its story and its script. Much like Inside Out, Docter and team have found a way to create tangible settings and worlds out of the most intangible abstract concepts. They’ve managed to put a unique spin on how people are assigned personalities, but also personify the concept of lost souls and even the idea of being “in the zone” effortlessly. But like I said, the real winner about this movie is its messages. Soul uses these clever metaphors to tell a story about the beauty of life, and why it’s worth living – even beyond just our dreams and passions- through the parallel arcs of two characters who need to learn that lesson, along with a strong message about confusing the difference between passions and true meaning in life. Both Joe and 22 are wonderful yet flawed characters that are easy to fall in love with and relate to. And what they learn from one another is inspiring and moving. As the characters come to appreciate life, you in the audience do as well, because Pixar’s just exceptionally good at finding the humanity in all of its stories and characters. It’s also incredibly funny! There’s so many moments that stand out as hilarious, courtesy of characters like Graham Norton’s Moonwind and his band of merry hippies, to Rachel House’s Terry, an overzealous soul accountant (and as I’ve already mentioned, Fey’s standout performance). I found myself laughing really hard at certain scenes.

The animation and music in the film are also just incredible. Animation-wise, Pixar breaks new ground, straddling the line between photorealism, perfectly capturing the essence of New York City, classic Pixar looks (the character work on 22 and Joe for instance), and experimental 2D techniques, as seen in the amazing realms of the spiritual world (particularly the looks and feels of the Jerry/Terry characters). And the musical score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is also so perfectly matched with this movie. It’s touching when it needs to be, and experimental at times when the film needs to evoke New Age concepts and visuals.

Admittedly the only real flaw I had with Soul are a few moments in the second act where the film tends to drag a little. The bulk of the story and the character arcs of 22 and Joe are absolutely contingent on this very critical 2nd act (which throws a bit of body swap comedy into the proceedings). And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But the movie could stand to lose maybe 5 minutes from this section. Perhaps a few of the jokes that didn’t work during that act or were a bit more obvious could have been saved as deleted scenes for the home release. That said, as I mentioned, this act is crucial for the characters to develop and grow, so they’re quite necessary.

Naturally I’d be remiss in discussing one of the greatest strengths about this movie, which is that it’s the first Pixar film really centering on an African American character. As such, it also celebrates African American culture as well, from Joe’s passion for jazz, the music we hear in the film courtesy of Jon Batiste, and his visit to a barber shop that serves as a really important moment for 22. It also shows a really diverse cast of characters. For example, Connie, Joe’s most influencial student, is Asian American. There were various characters of South Asian decent featured as well from Joe’ s doctor to even a random patient in the hospital he’s in. This is honestly a first for Pixar as majority of the human characters featured in their films have been predominantly Caucasian.

More than anything, Soul is a celebration of humanity and living. It’s Pixar at its finest, offering a funny, heartwarming, creative work of art that lives comfortably alongside the very best the studio has had to offer. Admittedly, as much as I loved Incredibles 2, liked Toy Story 4, and sort of liked Onward, Soul represents a real true return to form to the Pixar we know and need; a daring, mature, poignant look at humanity and the up-side to living that serves as a spark for us all during a time when the world is at it’s darkest.

Overall Score: A

Soul will be streaming as a Christmas gift to all of us on Disney+, December 25th, 2020.

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