Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, June Squibb
Director: Pete Docter
Co-Director: Kemp Powers
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: I recently was watching some programming on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and it included clips from 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar’s first full length feature film. It was a landmark in the movie business, the first entirely computer-animated feature and it opened so many doors for artists and creative energy to flow over the next twenty-five years. It’s strange to look back at that revelatory movie (that still holds up well today, I might add) and see how far the medium has grown. Now the animation borders on prehistoric in terms of composition and the ability to capture life-life expression and scenery. It’s easier than ever to lose yourself in a Pixar film, which is a huge help with stories that are aiming for emotional connections like Onward from earlier in 2020. (Doesn’t it feel like that movie came out two years ago after all we’ve been through?)
Pixar levels up, amazingly, once more with their latest release and it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when I tell you that Soul finds a way into your heart in the most unique ways. Bumped from its June theatrical release to a hoped-for November bow in theaters before Disney threw in the towel and decided to put their efforts behind a holiday release on Disney+, Soul is wisely debuting Christmas Day when families can gather in harmony for a moving viewing experience. Though it deals with topics that are deeper and often less tangible than other Pixar productions and parents should get ready to unpack the movie with their younger children after (or during), Soul finds Pixar pushing the boundaries of storytelling to a far more inquisitive and almost metaphysical plane.
Continuing their trend of tweaking their studio logo to fit the film it precedes, Disney allows Soul to re-orchestrate their opening fanfare, helping to set the tone as we meet middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy) hoping to inspire his inner-city students in the short amount of time he has them each day. A jazz musician at his core ever since his late father taught him to love the style when he was the same age as his students, he picks up the occasional side gigs but never achieved the level of his success that matched his talent. When he’s offered a full-time teaching job that would provide stability, not to mention would also please his firm but caring mother (Phylicia Rashad, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), a self-made woman that owns her own tailoring shop), Joe struggles with choosing some permanence in his life over the possibility that something may happen down the road.
Then, a call from a former student (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove) offers a chance to fill in for the quartet that plays with jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and it could be the opportunity that changes everything. A head held high and open manhole cover with a perilous drop ends that dream, though, and Joe’s soul is taken from his body and set on a course to the Great Beyond. Now in the form of an aqua colored sprite that has Joe’s identifiable hat and glasses, Joe escapes from his final journey and winds up in the Great Before as an unlikely mentor to a soul yet to be born. Helping this soul (Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) find their purpose by examining his own lived life becomes Joe’s ticket back to Earth and a reunion with his body.
Sounds like the full movie, right? Ah…but this is from those ever-imaginative minds at Pixar and the outline above only covers the first 1/3 of Soul. Oscar-winning writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and his co-director Kemp Powers make Joe’s journey to the Great Before and his time there one of interesting discovery where origins of personality are found and motivations for a full life are started. It’s a fascinating conversation for the movie to have with its audience and one that I’m sure will stay on your mind after; fantasy though this may be there’s some truth to thinking about what moves us and keeps us on track. I didn’t even mention a hippie-dippie tie-dyed pirate character (Graham Norton) that’s very much alive on Earth but found his way into the Great Before by going into what we call “The Zone” or a chubby feline that plays an important role in the latter half of the movie.
It’s when the movie advances past Joe and his mentee getting to know one another in the Great Before that Soul earns its stripes for ingenuity and starts to close its grasp around your tear ducts, readying to squeeze. It always amazes me the level of detail the writers and designers at Pixar can drill down to in each sequence. There are comedic bits included here that would take forever to work out in live-action and even then may not come out correctly. Yet they’re razor sharp here without a second of extra space for a laugh to go on for too long or too short. Further, the action is complicated but easy to follow even with all the bells and whistles they’ve put on it. That’s excellent filmmaking no matter what the medium it’s being made in. It’s amplified by the score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Waves) which gives the film an ample pulse and runs in a nice parallel to the jazz compositions provided by Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Then there’s the way Docter, Powers, and the crew can make a simple moment, a small line, or a brief glance have huge emotional weight when you least expect it. The realism of the animation at times helps this immeasurably. There were honestly moments when I forgot it was animated, like Joe on a park bench watching the twirling seeds of maple trees fall or walking into a neighborhood barber shop. You feel like you have to blink several times to adjust your eyes back to the animation. There are several emotional high points within but the most effective one is instrument and dialogue free, and I won’t spoil where it is, but when you start to feel your eyes heat up, your cheeks flush, and the goosebumps ripple…you’ll know you’ve arrived. As the first African American co-director in Pixar’s history (who will also be well-represented in end-of-the-year awards with One Night in Miami for Amazon), Powers brings some much-needed balanced narrative to the traditionally more vanilla Pixar brand of moviemaking. Coupled with Docter’s trademark brand of tapping into what is going to pluck your increasingly fragile heartstrings and you have an inspired collaboration.
If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that a film about a jazz-musician’s soul figuring out their true spark of purpose set to a largely high-top horn heavy jazz score would be a tough sell but Soul emerges of one of Pixar’s mighty best, standing among an already impressive roster of top titles. The voice cast is stellar (Foxx is the least Jamie Foxx he’s ever been and that’s a great thing) and it’s filled with jokes simple enough for small(er) children to laugh at and a number of quite hysterical one-liners (and appearances) involving historical philosophers and do-gooders that adults will get a belly laugh or four out of. Despite the warning that parents might have to be prepared for some questions about death and what happens after we die, not to mention the film toying with the sticky-subject of the ability to come back after you die, for everyone else this is exactly the way you want your Pixar films to be: creative, moving, magical, funny, and thoughtful. One of the very best of the year.