Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Soul (2020) dir. Pete Docter & Kemp Powers

Pixar contemplates the meaning of life for the first time outside of a Toy Story film

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The boldness of Pixar Animation Studios can be seen in their latest effort’s title alone: Soul. No further descriptors required. I’ve always maintained that the many Pixar sequels (Cars 2 the worst among them, of course) are necessary evils in order to finance their finer standalone works. Soul, much like Inside Out before it, turns an abstract concept (a soul, of course) into colorful characters who embark on an imaginative race against the clock. There is just as much focus on the real world as the metaphysical, with some of the most impressive and photorealistic lighting I’ve ever seen in a CGI film.

Clocking in at hardly 90 minutes, Soul hits the ground running immediately. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who dreams of breaking into the jazz scene as a pianist. He is offered a full-time position at his school, but is holding out for his chance to play with musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) when he falls down a manhole and dies. He wakes up as a blue blob heading to the Great Beyond but escapes into the Teletubbies-esque world of the Great Before, where souls gain their personalities. If it feels like I’m going through this quickly, I’m operating at the same speed as the film.

In the Great Before, Joe meets higher dimension beings known as the Counselors, all named Jerry (Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, and Zenobia Shroff) who take the form of glowing white shapeshifting stick figures. These character designs are far more captivating than the drone-like blobs that power the mind in Inside Out, with soothing tones that leave you contemplating the scope of their abilities and knowledge. There is also the antagonistic accountant Terry (Rachel House, a comedic genius) who is determined to correct the count of souls and send Joe to the Great Beyond.

To return to his body in time for his big break, Joe enlists the help of a sardonic soul known as 22, voiced by Tina Fey. Fey is the film’s weakest link– ironic, as her frequent collaborator Amy Poehler gave the performance of her career as Joy in Inside Out. We’re told through several cutaway gags that 22 is annoying, but Fey’s performance comes off as disinterested instead. When the pair escapes to Earth, Fey’s role becomes even more ill-suited, as she is stuck in Joe’s body while Joe ends up in a therapy cat. 

There is a long history of POC characters in animation being transformed into other things for the majority of the runtime (The Emperor’s New Groove, Brother Bear, The Princess and the Frog… it’s almost like Disney has a few biases to examine), and though Soul oscillates frequently between blue and Black characters, it feels tonedeaf to have Tina Fey’s voice coming out of a Black man, especially as Joe is the first Black lead of a Pixar film. Couldn’t they have at least gotten a Black actress who would have thrived in the role, like Nicole Byer? Though the film is beautifully crafted on a technical level, the casting choices feel underthought.

Soul feels like early Pixar in a lot of ways, in that it feels like it exists in order to experiment with new tech and push the medium of animation forward. Pixar’s human characters have vastly improved, here looking stylized but with existing in a world realistic lighting and shaky camera movements. Joe’s mother (Phylicia Rashad) owns a tailor shop that stands out, sun peeking in through the window and revealing particles of dust coming off of the fabrics. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross isn’t actually as jazzy as I assumed it would be, seeking instead to capture the strange serenity of the Great Before. I’m sure it would play well in a theater, but it functions well enough in a home viewing setting.

No film exists in a vacuum, and especially not a Pixar film. Soul, like many of Disney’s recent efforts, is two steps forward, one step back. Though Tina Fey’s performance dings my overall enjoyment of the story, I tried to not let it totally distract from Joe’s artistic journey and the film’s eventual moral, as open-ended as it may appear. There’s a sense of serenity that permeates the film, almost as if the Counselors were breaking through the fictional space to reassure us that everything and everyone has a purpose and a soul to fuel it.

Soul
2020
Dir. Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
100 min

Available to stream on Disney Plus 12/25

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