Review: Soul



Welcome to the rest of your afterlife.

Hey, it’s the last review of 2020, and the last chance for someone to upset that top ten. Pixar have done a good job recently at breaking into that ranking, with Coco my film of the year in 2018, and Toy Story 4 up there twelve months ago. The company’s first pandemic-era offering of 2020, Onward, didn’t do it for me, a very engaging film but one that did not live up to the lofty expectations that come with having that lamp in your title sequence. Instead it was more of a middling affair, a reminder that the Disneyfication of Pixar means the days of nothing but knock-outs are well and truly over.

Enter Soul. The latest in a series of theatrical write-offs now getting their chance as a Disney+ release, it had a hell of a lot going for it: the first Pete Docter directing/writing project since Inside Out (who else has made 2 billion in three movies?); a great cast of acting and comedy luminaries; a musical emphasis that Pixar has done well with in the past; and yet another attempt at tackling the great topic of death (this will be the third time in the last five films this has been the case), with the studio having a pretty good track record when it comes to weighty themes. I was ready to be wowed, but wary of the mediocre: which side of the 2020 Pixar coin did Soul come out on?

Joe (Jamie Foxx) is an unfulfilled jazz pianist scrapping by while he awaits his big break. Shortly after gaining such an opportunity he falls down an uncovered manhole, and awakens in an afterlife where he flees the “Great Beyond” in favour of the “Great Before”, a place where souls are prepared for life on Earth. There he meets “22” (Tina Fey), a soul who has long refused to advance into life: together, the two of them seek to find a way to get Joe back into his comatose body, and to the gig on time, but along the way Joe begins to learn the downside of having an overriding passion.

There’s a lot worth discussing in Soul, a film that goes from covering what appears to be the very mundane (a serious plot point is the main character needing to get a split in his trousers fixed in a hurry) to the cosmically meaningful (is there a bigger question in our existence than “What happens when we die?”). Like so many of their offerings before now, the Pixar team that brought us Up, WALL-E, Toy Story 3 and Inside Out attempts to tie a line between those two distant polls, while making the material from either end of that line as good as it can be. And, once again, they have succeeded.

That question – “What happens when we die?” – is something that every single person capable of asking it has asked. We’ve all come up with our own ideas, interpretations, fantasies, of what life after life would be like. Soul is a depiction of one of those things, and it is an enthrallingly unique one. Joe, after an unfortunate walk into an open manhole cover, ends up staring into the “Great Beyond”: a vast starscape in which there is a moving walkway heading towards an imposing, eerie brightness. Souls float into it, crackle like flies hitting a bug zapper, and they are gone with no other ceremony. Joe, like many of us would, flees in a panic and ends up in the equally interesting, but less terrifying, “Great Before”, depicted as a sort of new-age learning environment where unformed souls are given some polishing by a ceaselessly polite and affirming collection of Picasso-esque lifeforms all named Jerry.

I’ll stop there: it suffices to say that this vision is one that grabs your attention in the world that is created. No obvious religious theology here, just an attempt, as there was with the depiction of good/bad mental health in Inside Out, to parse the idea of what came before and what will come after down to a simple level: existentialism for kids, but in a manner that will make the grown-ups think hard as well. There are a lot of big ideas at play throughout, but I thought that Soul did a good job at finding the balance between them all.

But how to get from this plot to the previously mentioned mundanity? Soul starts out that way, in a really great eight-or-so minute sequence, where we get introduced to Joe, his love for music, his struggles in life and the sudden possibility of getting his big break, all before a rather big fall (Docter has some experience in getting the audience immersed fast, being the man behind the first five minutes of Up). Jamie Foxx plays Joe with a great sad sack energy, very much making him the kind of friend you always roll your eyes at because he never shuts up about the one thing he is completely obsessed with. Jazz has become the only thing in Joe’s life that he identifies as having worth, and then he, well, dies. It’s good to see a POC character in this role though Soul never brings a great deal of overt attention to it. It’s just who Joe is: scenes in a barbershop or in a jazz club – “black spaces” as co-director Kemp Powers put it – explore black culture and ways of interactions that are unique to that culture, but it is never the main point of the exercise.

The sudden volte-face in terms of locations, music, tone and colour as we go to the Great Before is jarring but in a very intriguing way: it’s there we meet the bulk of one is a great supporting cast, from Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon-like 22 who just wants everyone to leave her alone, the various Jerry’s that run the place (Richard Ayoade being the best), Moonwind, voiced by an irrepressible Graham Norton, is a new age guru who helps lost souls get through their problems, and Terry (Rachel House), the cosmic accountant who injects just the right amount of antagonism into proceedings without ever threatening to take over things (and they are actually dead right: one of the most powerful lines of the film is when Terry tells Joe “You cheated”). This cast is able to take us on a journey where we are reminded about the big things, the little things, and why there might not be much of a difference between them.

I really appreciated the way that Soul handles its humour, which is often of the blackest kind. It’s a serious film in so many ways, perhaps the most “adult” that Pixar have ever done, but it is able to effectively weave in plenty of jokes, and often these jokes are actually at the core of some of the films deeper messages. Case in point: 22 has had a list of dead mentors stretching all the way back to Ancient Greek philosophers, and Soul employs her memories of their failing efforts to get her to go to Earth as a recurring joke. But then, at the end, those same memories come back in a remarkably serious sequence, that ties int the kind of ideas that Pete Docter also explored in Inside Out, namely how one can attempt to turn constant criticism into a joke, but on the inside it can still tear them apart.

Foxx and Fey have some decent chemistry.

But that’s pretty serious sounding, for a film that can frequently engender belly laughs: the trombone playing student who blows the top off their trombone: the cat soul that inadvertently finds itself on the path to the Great Beyond; the unexpected hostage-taking by Joe’s mother early on; anytime Terry is interacting with a Jerry, his grouchiness colliding with their unceasing politeness; Joe having to communicate through a cat; and many, many more. Soul knows when to bring the drama, when to bring the emotion, but it is a very amusing experience at the same time.

Soul takes an unexpected turn when Joe figures out how to get back to Earth with the want-away soul of 22. Together, the two end up back on terra firma where Pixar once again brings the absurd to an altogether serious situation, with Joe inside the body of a cat, and 22 inside the body of Joe. Hi-jinks ensue. Said hi-jinks are fun, meaningful and serve the larger plot nicely: it’s the way in which the production team manages to thread that line between the cosmic and the mundane. Throw in a St Peter-esque accountant trying to figure out why the Beyond count is off by one, some drama between Joe and his mother, and 22 coming to understand what it means to actually live, and you have yourself an effortlessly entertaining, always engaging story of figuring out the important things in life, that’s so well paced I was genuinely surprised when the finale rolled around. Which leads me nicely into my next point.

I was agog at one of the main ideas of Soul, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is a disease in Hollywood sometimes that the chasing of dreams is portrayed in the brightest possible light: I think La La Land is a perfect example as a comparison to what Soul does (and that was a musical film too): there, a character who decided to reduce his passionate ambition to a tertiary priority in order to focus on making himself a financial success first was portrayed as a man who was kidding himself about ever possibly being happy with anything else he tried to do. Soul has the courage and the conviction to state bluntly to a lot of impressionable young minds a badly needed contrasting message: don’t get obsessed with following your dream, because it might not work out, and even if it does it might not be the glorious self-actualisation you think it will be. In fact, you might even find that your back-up plan is what you were meant to do, something that traditional scripts in films of this type treat like heresy. And then it follows this up with a brilliant ode to finding pleasure, enjoyment and passion in the things you might not normally associate with those words: in the everyday and ordinary things that might not be flashy life-defining events, but which offer some of the best opportunities for living our best lives. This can be eating a slice of cake in a quiet moment, it can be having a new conversation with an old friend.

In the depths of lockdowns over COVID that are stifling our ability to YOLO our way through existence like other parts of Hollywood insist we should be doing, that’s a message I can get behind. And it is portrayed so well in Soul, in twin scenes where the main character looks upon a record of a life where he appears to have accomplished very little, and then later realises that this same record of his existence, if considered more carefully, carries a great deal of meaning in even the smallest act. This film had me near tears looking at a guy eating alone in a diner and not because it is a sad moment, but because of the realisation that it was a happy one. God damn, we need to remind ourselves more that such things have worth if we approach them the right way, and we need more films like Soul willing to tell the La La Land’s of this world where to go.

Soul is, by definition, a very musical film, but it is striking how it straddles the line between the very jazz-focused stuff on Earth and the sort-of low-fi chill hop of the Great Beyond and Before. The jazz, from Jon Batiste, is all great, really getting across how it is a form of music that just about anybody can enjoy, and through Joe, with Foxx’s performance, the film is able to get across the fierce love that it engenders. From a truly awful band class renditions of the Disney jingle at the start (a brilliant opening joke) right through to the end titles “It’s Alright”, Soul’s jazz has plenty of the title. But really I was more impressed with the other half of things, where the score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross really gets going. It might seems strange given that they have won plenty of awards, but I do feel they are sometimes underlooked in the modern film composing scene. Soul is another example as to why this should not be so. The nearest approximation that I can think of is Mike Morasky’s work on Portal 2, a sort of simple, but entrancing series of electronic beat, with varying chimes that create an ambiance of other-wordlyness mixed with the bureaucratic. The world of the “You Seminar” sounds like a sort of unnerving operating system, and it’s a perfectly pitched audio idea.

The visual side of things is, of course, similarly stunning. It’s old hat to give praise for that department to Pixar, but I guess if they keep providing the goods, I’ll just have to keep providing the kudos. Here they have re-invented their depiction of form and outdone themselves yet again: in the slightly more realistic, yet still caricature-like human models in the real world (New York in animation has never seemed so, well, alive), and in the absolutely unique look of the other-world, that brings “abstract” to a new level for this genre. The Jerry’s in the Great Before (reduced to wiry outlines because that is all that humans can comprehend), the Great Beyond, the “Hall of Everything”, the sea of lost souls, and that’s just one half of the film. The influences appear to have been extremely varied: you can see bits of Interstellar, A Matter Of Life And Death, It’s A Wonderful Life, Coming To America and even, yes, La La Land, in various parts. As always, it is the little touches that truly amaze: Joe’s jazz idol busting out a truly incredibly animated saxophone; Joe’s several close calls with death before he actually falls into the manhole; the abacus of Terry, that he uses to count souls; the ship that Moonwind uses on the sea of lost souls; and those are just the finer details. I could talk at length about any particular scene of Soul: there is something that catches the eye in every frame, from those blue representations of our spiritual selves, down to the playing of an instrument (Soul might deserve awards for its finger animation alone). There’s love in this film, in every iota of it.

Soul might not be my very favourite film of the year, but it came damn close to reaching that peak. I am repeating myself every year it seems, but Pixar keeps making incredible films. And Soul deserves its place on their top tier, it really does. It’s a film that manages to show us something very imaginative about what the world beyond our own, and before our own, might look like. It says something extremely profound about the nature of living in our world, and does so against the traditional grain. It does all of this with some incredible visuals, brilliant music, an excellent cast and an occasional sense of fun that is merged with the drama seamlessly. The best Pixar films have always been able to tick all those boxes, and lodge themselves very firmly in the mind, now and forever: Soul does that. It’s a contemplative experience, one likely to make you ask questions of yourself, and wonder about what your best life is. Unlike some other films of late, it has no merchandising concerns, no pretensions of setting up a sequel. Perhaps it might be for the best if the studio was to move on from death as a baseline for their films, but if they are to do so Soul is an excellent way of leaving it. This film deserves the largest possible audience, one it is unlikely to get via streaming. It deserves your set of eyes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy a slice of pizza. Highly recommended.

You got it.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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4 Responses to Review: Soul

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