WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher, gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But, one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22, who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what's great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
One of the undisputable ‘worst years’ is now behind us and we can start 2021 with the wholesome magic of a Pixar movie - and one of their most unique ones to date. The animation company is well-known for its portrayal of complex emotional quandaries and genuinely poignant characters, especially when it comes to explaining complex grown-up feelings to kids.
Soul, however, is a slight pivot away from appealing to young audiences and instead leans towards a more adult exploration of the purpose of life. That might sound like a really BIG and complicated concept to condense into a feature-length animation, but part of Pixar’s brilliance is their ability to simplify complicated notions into beautiful storytelling that’s accessible to all.
Part of its more adult feel is due to its main character Joe - an African-American jazz musician so obsessed with his craft that he has kind of forgotten to live his life beyond this supposed ‘purpose’. As he finally lands a big break, the universe turns on him and his soul is thrust from his body to the gates of the Great Beyond.
Feeling cheated, however, he refuses to move on and finds himself in the Great Before, where he meets 22 - an ‘old soul’ who has refused to go to Earth and doesn’t believe that life is worth all the hype. They conspire to help each other out while being tracked by Terry - the soul counter who doesn’t like things to be out of place.
It’s a journey of discovering - or in Joe’s case rediscovering - what makes life worth living despite its drawbacks. We all sometimes become so focused on discovering our purpose in life, constantly clawing at that imagined prize that will finally make our own lives worth the suffering that comes with living. Soul is a reminder that we tend to forget to just pause and actually experience the life that we have and being present.
But it’s not just some ethereal ‘kumbaya’ story - Pixar gives it substance through some of their most experimental work that somehow transcends the idea of religion when it comes to imagining the Afterlife. The Jerrys are distinct and indistinct at the same time, ethereal beings that keep the universe ticking, the young souls little formless blobs, while the older souls are formed according to the life they lived on Earth. This is accompanied by a visceral score that compliments the animation perfectly and surely deserving of recognition in the upcoming award season. It’s a combination of riffing jazz jam sessions - created by Jon Batiste - which is funnily known as ‘soulful’ music, and this oddly modern angelic score that really pushes the boundaries of the art form. The music brings the audience into the experience of Joe, of a soul cast into the ether, and you can’t help but enjoy this spiritual ride.
As for the voice cast, Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey was a fun pairing as Joe and 22 and not a duo I ever would have expected to see in a film. Fey was also a good choice as she pulled off quite a gender-neutral voice for the young-old soul who wouldn’t have fallen into the world’s gender normative ways yet, and another example of the small details that Pixar really pays attention to.
But my favourite voices were the Jerrys and Terry, a mix of the dry Richard Ayoade, Brazillian actress Alice Braga and the best of them all - New Zealander Rachel House. She was by far my favourite and instantly recognisable as the stoic Topaz from Thor: Ragnarok and determined Paula from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. That accent is just pure delight and I am excited to hear her in more future animations.
It’s also heartening to know that while helmed by Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter, they promoted newcomer Kemp Powers from co-writer to co-director after he made such a considerably large contribution to the story, especially with Joe, and in the process became Pixar’s first African-American co-director.
As we say goodbye to 2020 and enter another uncertain future, Soul comes at the perfect time when the world is feeling a little lost and purposeless. It’s not as much of a tearjerker as Inside Out or the Toy Story franchise, but its power comes from its creative unspooling of the question of life. It doesn’t offer an answer in any shape or form, but rather dusts off the cobwebs that you might have gathered in your life, and explains to those just starting out in life that it’s okay not to know exactly what you want from life - it’s more important that you live it.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
Soul is now showing in cinemas