US (2020) Dirs. Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
What is your purpose in life? Is it a talent, a person, a hobby, a calling? Some people go through life without any real direction, following the school, job, marry, kids, retirement, and death pattern and nothing to show for it at the end. Are they tragic cases or the lucky ones? Pixar is about to get existential.
Joe Gardner, a New York based music teacher and jazz pianist, has dreams of being a professional musician, but his mother Libba constantly berates him about finding steady employment. When Joe gets the chance to play with jazz legend Dorothea Williams he is on cloud nine as he rushes home to prepare for the gig later that night, but in his giddy state, accidentally falls down a manhole.
He awakens as a tiny soul en route to the Great Beyond. Not ready to die, Joe escapes, finding himself in the Great Before, where unborn souls are given mentors to help them find their “spark”. Mistaken for someone else, Joe is given soul No 22, a troublesome scamp with no interest in going to earth, having upset al her other mentors. Joe wants to return to earth to play the gig and needs 22 to cooperate, but will she?
Pixar’s last film was the underwhelming Onward that had many, including yours truly, wonder if the bubble had finally burst for the CGI animation giants. Therefore a lot was riding on their next project to prove Onward was just an aberration and there were still more gems left in them to continue their already impressive oeuvre.
Soul is that next project, and it seems Pixar were undeterred by the lukewarm reaction to Onward and took the challenge head on to regain public favour. It really shouldn’t be seen as a risk but with Hollywood being racist, the idea that Soul would have a black protagonist and set in a black community was considered brave by some. However, with the BLM movement in full swing, it couldn’t be more on point.
But Pixar went a step further in their representation with a voice cast of black actors for the black characters, including Jamie Foxx as Joe, Angela Basset as Dorothea, and Cosby Show star Phylicia Rashad as Libba. Not to mention co-director Kemp Powers is black, his input and experiences of life in New York changing the direction of the original story, but I’m sure some will complain about white man Pete Docter’s top billing!
Returning to the story, the chance to play for Dorothea is the opening Joe has waited for. If his head wasn’t in the clouds as he danced his way home, he might have seen the manhole. On earth, he is now in a coma, in the Great Beyond, he is a tiny blue avatar of himself that has slipped into this world a little prematurely. In fact, this becomes a crucial plot point, because the Joe’s presence in the Great Before causes a miscount in the daily arrival for the accountant Terry, who sets about finding this anomaly.
Meanwhile, Joe is met by a group of soul counsellors all called Jerry (one is voiced by our very own Richard Ayoade) who mistake him for a psychologist and assign 22 (Tina Fey) to him as his student. 22 has no interest in going to earth and does her damndest to fail the completion of her Earth pass, which will see her born on our planet. Joe is not going to let this ruin his big moment, and when she rejects his attempts to find 22’s spark – a purpose in life – for her to pass they try another way.
Enlisting the help of a mystic named Moonwind (voiced by Graham Norton!), they locate Joe’s body in hospital, being visited by a helper with a therapy cat. Joe and 22 fall into the portal and land on earth – except Joe ends up in the cat and 22 in Joe’s body. As he only ones who can communicate with each other, Joe has to get 22 to pretend to be him until Moonwind can return them to normal thirty minutes before the gig.
Normally, the whimsy and scope of imagination possible for creating a spirit world would provide a film with its strongest moments since it is a departure from the familiarity of the “real world”; oddly, the film becomes far more interesting and entertaining once Joe and 22 crash land in the wrong bodies. Not to dismiss the oddity of the Great Before – the counsellors are translucent Picasso-esque line drawings, and the world itself is full of dreamy vistas rendered in a blue and green pastel palette.
Yet it is impossible not be amused by 22 trying to move Joe’s body when she has never been in one before, his gangly frame and spindly legs built for slapstick comedy. Then of course, you have a chubby cat trying to perform human tasks and failing miserably, which also provides much hilarity, but never once undermines the high concept driving the story, because we know why this happened and not just some deus ex machina fluke.
And it is delivered via arguably Pixar’s most accomplished visual presentation to date, almost a cliché considering how far they have raised the bar already. The artwork and animation moves closer to photorealism, despite cartoony character designs, whilst the texture, colour tones, and lighting are more accurate than ever. It is also very cinematic in shot composition and camera angles creating greater depth, thanks to improved CGI affording wider flexibility in this aspect.
Of course, here is a message imparted here but for once, we aren’t bludgeoned with it; if anything, the script deliberately misleads us with essentially a two-fold moral. But, like most films, you can find your own interpretation in what Soul has to say, or you can simply be entertained, amused, and hopefully moved by this warm, inventive, and – pardon the pun – soulful opus.