Soul (2020) Review

A BEAUTIFUL REMINDER TO

NOT MISS OUT ON THE JOYS OF LIFE


 

Pixar Studios has become the premiere powerhouse animated studio for nearly the past twenty-five years; producing some of the more memorable and beloved animated feature films that have seeing a theatrical release. While other studios have indeed produced hits (i.e. DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment, Blu Sky, Warner Bros Animation, etc.), Pixar, a subsidiary company underneath the Walt Disney Studios banner, has capitalized on being the leading studio of children’s animated feature films; utilizing the bright and color world of cartoon storytelling to be made for the young audience, but finds a way into the hearts of older viewers; sparking strong themes of family, childhood, love, life, and difference of opinions. Some of their films, including Toy StoryFinding NemoMonsters IncUpInside Out, and Coco have certainly demonstrated this notion as well as strong family friendly films of quality stock such as Cars and The Incredibles. Now, after the first 2020 release of Onward, Pixar Animation Studios (as well as Walt Disney Studios) and director Pete Docter presents their 23rd animated feature with the movie Soul. Does this latest film stand tall and proud in Pixar’s illustrious animated library or does it fail to meet the high standards from the studio’s signature pedigree of children’s entertainment?

THE STORY


Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who’s been trying to becoming a working jazz pianist for quite some time, unable to find a proper / steady gig in the community. Facing a job that doesn’t allow him to follow his dreams, Joe’s former student presents an opportunity for him to join jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) on stage; jumping at the chance to pursue his passion and offering a impressive audition that lands him the job. In a moment of happiness, Joe makes his way home, only to fall down an open manhole. Waking up on his way to Great Beyond, Joe learns he’s near-death back on Earth, now a soul waiting for his final moments of existence. Scrambling to escape the finality of his life, the musician scrambles to find a way back home to his body, making his way to the “Great Before”; the birth place of human souls before the travel to Earth. There, he comes across 22 (Tiny Fey), a soul who refuses to find her “spark” and join humanity, with the pair scheming to find a way to Joe to return to his body. However, their journey together proves to be more profound and enlightening than neither one could imagine; presenting each other with the truth that they might’ve avoid and realizing their full protentional of life.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Sorry if the opening paragraphs sounds quite familiar from what I wrote in my review Onward as well as this paragraph. It definitely fits both reviews in what I want to say. So….it goes without saying that when a Pixar movie gets released, there is reason to het excited for. As mentioned, (but it’s almost common knowledge), Pixar Studios have certainly become the “leading” animation studio for a better part more of two decades. I certainly grew up with their movies, with the original 1995 Toy Story capturing my ten-year-old attention with its then state-of-the-art CGI animation and memorable characters. After that, I remember seeing the change in Disney’s releases (the latter half of their “Renaissance Era”) and the rise of Pixar’s animated features, with Pixar becoming the more dominant powerhouse than its parent company. Much like how Disney had their signature style of princesses, musical songs, and colorful animal sidekicks, I love how Pixar has their own personal signature; mixing ever stunning 3D animation and wholesome storytelling together in way that never undermines their quality of cinematic filmmaking as well as well-rounded entertainment for all. Plus, the tender themes and message that many of their theatrical releases promote are highly valuable and indeed more memorable than any other children’s cartoon movies out there. Some of my personal favorite Pixar releases have Toy Story 3Monsters IncInside OutIncrediblesCoco, and Finding Nemo. That being said, Pixar certainly has had one or two missteps along the way, with such movies like Cars 2 in 2011 and The Good Dinosaur in 2015, which are, more or less, considered the “black sheep” of the Pixar category. In addition, I personally think that Pixar relies too heavily on trying to expand upon its already established as brand / series (i.e., Toy StoryCarsIncredibles, etc.) and needs to focus a bit more creating original content. However, that’s a minor quibble. In the end, Pixar Animation Studios still continues to be one of the premiere animated studios out there and has no sign of stopping anytime soon. And that’s a good thing!

This brings me back to talking about Soul, Pixar’s second feature film release in the 2020 year. After the release of Onward, Pixar’s first 2020 film, I was looking forward to seeing this particular movie. The past few years, Pixar hasn’t been saying much about Soul beyond a few snippets here and there. However, when it was announced that veteran Pixar director Pete Docter was gonna be directing the project as well as acting talents of Jamie Foxx and Tiny Fey voicing their film’s main characters, I was definitely interested in the movie. This was made even further when Pixar released the film’s various movie trailers, which had some amazing animation as well as a few laugh-out-loud-moments showcased in the footage. As I mentioned when I posted those trailers, the movie kind of looked like Inside Out (another film that Docter created), but Inside Out was definitely one of the more memorable releases from Pixar. So, I was definitely gamed to see this movie and was expecting that oh so “signature style” from Pixar. With all that, I was looking forward to seeing Soul, which was originally set for a theatrical release date of June 16th, 2020. However, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was delayed a few months with a new date of November 20th, 2020. Unfortunately, that date was eventually moved again, with Disney (parent company to Pixar) deciding to release Soul on their streaming service Disney+ for a Christmas Day release (as well as being free as opposed from paying a premium price to see it like 2020’s Mulan). So, over the holiday weekend, I decided to check out Soul on Disney+. And what did I think of it? Well, I actually liked it. Despite it having some complexed themes and few minor criticisms, Soul is a beautiful and thought-provoking feature that sits comfortable within the realm of Pixar Studios, with its colorful animation and heartwarming storytelling. It doesn’t beat out some of Pixar’s best (Inside Out, Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, Coco, Up, etc.), but it still is a great addition to the studio’s powerhouse library.

Soul is directed by Pete Docter, whose been a veteran director Pixar and has previously directed several memorable hits for the studio, including Monsters Inc., Up, and Inside Out. Given the amount of creativity and imagination of exploring the narrative storyline and abstract ideas of a film such as this, Docter seems like a perfect choice and does great job in presenting Soul with plenty of heartfelt moments within a colorful story in a way that only Pixar can dream up. To be sure, Soul, at first glance, looks to be a riff on Inside Out (as mentioned above), which Docter crafted by exploring the human world and inner turmoil of living. However, Soul slowly becomes its own entity, with Docter working to shape the feature into its own thing. That’s not to say that the director “borrows” several aspects from his 2015 film, especially in showcasing inner turmoil and having several abstract concepts / characters, but Soul finds its own rhythm of narration and storytelling to make it its own. Perhaps one of the most interesting and celebrated ideas that Docter does with Soul is in utilizing the cultural aspect of African Americans as the feature’s main focal point in both in the film’s main character as well as movie’s community setting. Much like Coco, the studio shines a light on the diversity cultural of a minority ethnicity and does in brilliant way; bolstering its story with African American cultures (one scene involving a barber shop) as well embracing jazz music, which plays an important part in their community. Some might cry stereotyping or pandering to the crowds, but I don’t think so as Docter takes care to make the film feel genuine in its overtures and in diversity sensitivity. Thus, I really like this idea and Soul certainly captures that notion beautifully, especially in today’s current political landscape and cultural division. That’s also not to say that the movie doesn’t have that imaginative take on Pixar’s caliber; showcasing plenty of abstract ideas and colorful playfulness that are showcased in some of the ethereal / spiritual worlds in the Great Before; playing upon some humors takes of creation and programming of souls.

As to be expected, Soul is a Pixar release and that means that the story being told has plethora of poignant and tender moments to be told and Docter certainly knows how to present them. Thus, Soul has a deeper meaning within its animated context, especially because it examines life and death and the purpose of living. While its quite dense to unfold (more on that below), Docter works to make the feature work with this idea, especially with the film’s script that was penned by Docter as well as Mike Jones and Kemp Powers. The narrative beats in the movie showcases plenty of deeper meaning of ideas that one would expect from Pixar; exploring life and how to live it, presenting that it sometimes takes longer for a person to figure out their purpose in life (and what they want from life), and beautiful message of just finding one’s passion….no matter what people might think of you. Thus, as you can imagine, there are few moments that might find yourself tearing up in the movie (I certainly did).

In addition, there are also some other deeper meaning themes that Soul explores such as where do passions come from? Are personalities learned through living life or ingrained at birth? Can a person’s passion (spark) change over time or is it pre-determined by destiny? These are quite philosophical fundamental questions that will probably go over the juice box crowd viewers, but are older adult viewers out there might pick up a thing or two within its deeper meaning constructs. That’s not to say that its all emotional drama throughout the movie as Soul has plenty of comedic gags and moments to laugh at as well as some more lighthearted pieces scatter throughout. I do have admit that some of my favorite comedy moments in the movie are some of the short cutaway scenes of 22 interacting with famous / iconic people in history. I won’t spoil them, but they are pretty hilarious. Overall, I was pretty impressed with Soul as it comes close to some of Pixar’s best releases, but still manages to provide the studio’s greatest moments with its signature sequences of comedy and heart.

Plus, as a sidenote, I do appreciate how the movie itself is something relatively new to Pixar and not so much of a prequel / sequel to some of their other releases. I like the whole “one and done” endeavor such as Brave, Onward, Up, Inside Out, and Coco and is a good reminder to us all that the animated studio has still plenty offer in the ways and means of new stories rather than relying already established franchises to build upon.

Presentation-wise, Soul is absolutely beautiful and showcases what Pixar can achieve with its usage of latest visual technology in animation styles. The “real world” sequences on Earth in the movie are unbelievable life-like and definitely are incredible to see, with intricate amount of detail being added into almost every scene that the eye can see. It’s truly something amazing to see what CGI animation can achieve, especially coming from one of the top animated studios of late. Facial expressions, physical body depictions, and character movements are always something to marvel over and Soul certainly portrays those quite beautiful. However, the environmental background layers are some of the best I’ve seeing in animated movies; producing a setting that’s both animatedly colorful yet fully of realism. In addition, the “Great Before” landscape (and other lands therein) is also colorfully fun; drumming up more of the imaginative aspect of the feature with an ethereal nuance that certainly the creative team on this project had fund creating (both in concept development computer CGI rendering). Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes team”, including Steve Pilcher (production design), Paul Abadilla and Tim Evatt (art direction), and Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben (cinematography), provide a feature film that looks amazing in its animation as well as projecting photorealistic landscape that’s I love to see.

Also, the film’s score, which was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, creates a very emotional musical composition for the feature; something truly does compliment the movie’s various scenes of character-built moments and sequences of dramatic enlightenment. It’s something that one would expect from a Pixar endeavor and it’s a solid one. In truth, the film’s usage of jazz music definitely helps incorporate an appropriate and cultural experience to Soul, which certainly helps build upon the film’s identity….and, for one, totally love and like how Pixar is embracing the idea.

There are a few problems that Soul faces during its cinematic tale of Joe Gardner’s journey and, while none are really problematic, are blemishes that could’ve been ironed out in the development stages, but still draw minor criticisms. To be honest, Pixar’s stories have always had complicated themes and Soul certainly one at the top ones; combining ones that are touching upon life and death. Unlike Inside Out, Soul’s theme, while powerful, can be a little bit too much for child to fully grasp and they might be a little “turned off” by the film’s journey; favoring more colorful / lighthearted Pixar installments instead of this one. For the most part, while Pixar’s stories have always been colorful and imaginative narrative, the stories themselves could be a little bit predictable in its undertaking and this particular movie is that. I’m not saying that the Soul’s story is pointlessly boring or enjoyable entertaining as I’ve pointed out that its very poignant and meaningful, but, in terms of formulaic predictability, the movie follows a very familiar path. This then makes the film’s journey of Joe Garner a bit predictable that makes a lot of the film’s laid out plans for twists and turns a little bit moot. Again, it’s not disastrous or boring, but I was a little bit more figuring out a lot of the feature’s narrative plot beats before they were happening a bit more so than some of other Docter’s works (i.e., Inside Out or Up).

Speaking of Docter’s past works, Soul doesn’t exactly “pushes the envelope” of Pixar’s signature of emotional drama. Yes, I do admit that teared up in one or two moments (as mentioned above) and it comes quite close to be a very sincere gesture of emotional drama / dramatic enlightenment, but can’t match what’s come before, especially in Docter’s past work. Of course, I’m talking about the emotional opening sequence of Up or Bingbong’s farewell in Inside Out. Even Pixar’s other movies such as Jesse’s flashback scene in Toy Story 2 or Miguel singing to his grandmother at the end of Coco seem more palpable and emotional charged than what Soul presents. Again, I know that’s really hard to match, especially since Pixar’s signature moments have become “legendary” in animation storytelling and / or cinematic storytelling and the studio has built up quite a collective library of profoundly amazing cartoon features. Thus, despite its signature quality of emotional drama, Soul can’t outmatch its past predecessor.

As a minor point of criticism, I felt that the ending of the film could’ve added a little bit more. Yes, the film’s ending certainly does give a conclusion to the movie and gives a positive closure to the story, but I think an epilogue could’ve been added. Nothing super long, but maybe like a 3 or 4-minute scenes that could’ve tied together the relationship journey between Joe and 22. I have several ideas, but saying them would spoil some of Soul’s story.

Looking beyond those criticisms, the voice cast of Soul is solid across the board with almost every acting talent selected for the project giving great performances within their respective cartoon character. Naturally, the film’s leading two characters of Joe Gardner and 22 steal the spotlight, with actor Jamie Foxx and actress Tina Fey providing the voices. Foxx, known for his roles in Django Unchained, Baby Driver, and Ray, brings a certain human quality to Joe Gardner, a man who dreams big and confronts a lot of emotional realizations. That’s not to say that the character isn’t funny as Foxx brings a larger-than-life persona to Joe; giving him several moments of comedic timing and one-liners. Likewise, Fey, known for her roles in 30 Rock, Sisters, and Saturday Night Live, certainly has made a name for herself in the comedy film world and brings that quality into her portrayal of 22, a cynical soul that doesn’t want to live on Earth and wants to remain in the Great Before. Together, both Foxx and Fey play off each other and definitely bring their “A” game in voicing these two characters; creating a certain memorable role for both Joe Gardner and 22.

Looking beyond those two roles, Soul does a great job in creating that shines a spotlight on African America characters (as mentioned above), especially when the film is heavily populated with both supporting characters themselves and the voice talents behind them. Much like Pixar’s Coco and Disney’s Moana, most of these players are well-represented (again, in both character and voicing) in their respective cultural ethnicity, including the talents of actress Phylicia Rashad (Creed and The Cosby Show) as Joe’s mom Libba, actor Daveed Diggs (Hamilton and Wonder) as Joe neighborhood nemesis Paul, actor Donnell Rawlings (Guy Court and Chappelle Show) as Joe’s barber Dez, musician talent Questlove as Joe’s former student / drummer in Doretha’s band Lamont “Curly” Baker, and actress Angela Bassett (Contact and Black Panther) as respected jazz musician Doretha Williams. Again, I love the idea that Disney is embracing cultural diversity within its characters and the vocal talents behind them, with Soul giving these supporting players (some important, some minor) there moment to shine in the feature.

Even the film’s various Great Before soul counselors (who are all named Jerry) and voiced by actress Alice Braga (Elysium and The New Mutants), actor Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd and The Boxtrolls), actor Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans and Avatar), actress Fortune Feimster (Office Christmas Party and Bless the Harts), and actress Zenobia Shroff (The Big Sick and The Affair), give life to these abstract characters; finding each one bringing a unique voice to their respective roles…in a amusing way. Plus, I do have to admit that the character of Terry, the soul counter for the Great Beyond, is quite hilarious in the movie, with actress Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok and Moana) giving a fun voice to the character, especially with her snappy one-liners. Lastly, television personality / actor Graham Norton provides the voice for the character of Moonwind, a spiritual sign twirler who has connection between the real world and “the zone” realm, with Norton imbuing the creation with his energetic vocals that works with his character’s eccentrics.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Everybody has a soul and Joe Gardner is about to find his in the new movie Soul. Director Pete Docter’s latest Pixar film takes an emotional journey through an individual’s life; exploring the deeper of living and desiring oneself in what they perceive / want from “living life” itself.  While the complexity of the narrative can be a bit too much for the younger viewers out there as well not beating out some of Pixar’s better orchestrated animated endeavors, the film is still a resounding and beautiful feature that certainly encompasses all of what Pixar’s signature style conveys with each of its installments, thanks to Docter’s direction, a solid story, a heartfelt message, strong themes, and solid voice talents. Personally, I really liked this movie. Yes, it doesn’t beat out Coco or Inside Out, but stands tall and proud in the studio’s animated library as a great and entertaining movie; one that really does speak to everyone in the light of events of the year 2020. Thus, my recommendation would definitely be a “highly recommended”; showcasing some of the best the studio has to offer for the year and is quite universal that everyone can take away something from this release…. regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. Whether you’re a fan of Pixar movies or just looking for a great animated feature to watch (or even some soul searching), Soul is the perfect choice; promising a lot of heart, humor, and to be a beautiful reminder of not to miss out on the joys of life.

4.4 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: December 25th, 2020
Reviewed On: December 30th, 2020

Soul  is 100 minutes long is rated PG for thematic elements and some language

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