A teacher (Jamie Foxx) desperately fighting for his chance to become a jazz musician is transported out of his body. He must find his way back to himself with the help of a soul still finding her way (Tina Fey) in the ‘Great Before’ – the place where all souls learn about what makes them ‘them’ before they are born.
Pixar has an enviable track record of releasing critically acclaimed films, perhaps one of the strongest of any Hollywood studio (despite a glaring Cars-shaped dent in its bonnet, no pun intended). It rarely deals in anything average, and Pixar’s latest film, Soul, is no exception to that rule.
There was much made before the Soul’s release about its portrayal of an African-American character as the lead protagonist, Joe Gardner. This angle has led to some critics digging out the film for perceived shortcomings in how it doesn’t foreground his story as an African-American man in the US, and its focus on jazz culture as an appropriated trope. For me, the beauty of animation is that it helps us tell stories that are more complex, intrinsic, and internal than is otherwise possible in the real world. Soul isn’t beautiful because it shows us how one man lives; it’s a symbolic look at the common experience we all find in living life as a human.
Among many other things that you can claim about the film, Soul is visually stunning. Taking us through a New York swelling with energy and music, its focus on the musicality of a city is reminiscent of one of my favourite animations, The Princess and the Frog. This music theme continues across the film as we leave Earth with Joe’s soul to the ‘Great Before’ and the ‘Zone’, places beyond human experience in which only the soul can roam. These locations are rendered in beautiful purples and blues, giving us a sense of serenity when dealing with themes such as death and the meaning of life.
Soul’s narrative builds a whole mythos around the beyond-human experience, as was done to incredible effect in Inside Out. While this film also offers us a peek behind the curtain of how the universe works, added layers of complexity in tackling a narrative both on Earth and in another realm of make it more challenging to keep the story focused. As such, Soul lacks the clarity of vision of Pixar’s finest films. However, keeping us on track and intrigued by the plot at all is a feat given the depth of thematic subjects touched on. A lot of the jokes land and the warm moments are beautiful and rending.
The film assembles a dizzying range of voice talent. Jamie Foxx delivers an amazing performance as protagonist Joe Gardner, while Tina Fey feels a little lost in her role as 22, the lost soul Joe meets in the ‘Great Before’. She doesn’t deliver as the funny to Joe’s foil, and her story is a bit lost amidst Joe’s single-minded determination to get back to his body on Earth. One of the film’s standout characters is Moonwind (voiced by Graham Norton), a sign-twirler who uses meditation to escape his body to the otherworld and helps Joe and 22 in their journey to return to Earth. But the real performance of the film is Terry, a number-crunching entity tasked with counting souls that enter the otherworld. Voiced by Rachel House, Terry is the ultimate by-the-book stickler and an ideal antagonist for the free-spirited nature of Joe and 22’s exploratory quest. House packs every line with so much pernickety-ness, making Terry hilarious and memorable.
Soul is another feather in Pixar’s bulging cap. Able to tackle complex themes in a simple story that’s a visual joy, this is a great film to watch for the start of a new year; it will really make you think about what’s important in life.
Pixar has done it – AGAIN. Soul is full of heart and gives us something to really think about, and it looks great too. 7.5/10.