For Pixar, past success has frequently stemmed from asking simple questions and providing answers in the most creative and entertaining ways imaginable. What if toys moved and talked when you weren’t in the room? What if the monsters in your closet were not only real but scaring you was their day job? What if a rat was the head chef of a five-star restaurant? Almost immediately, their abundantly ambitious and utterly absorbing new film Soul eschews these modest jumping-off points and tackles biggies like “why are we the way that we are?” and “what is the meaning of life?” Though the scope of this story and the avenues that it explores are deeper than some of the more elementary entries in the Pixar canon, it’s ultimately as fun and life-affirming as any entertainment you’re likely to find this year.
We meet beleaguered jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he toils at his day gig, struggling to imprint his passion for music to a hapless bunch of middle school band students. A beacon of light shines as he gets a call from a former student (Questlove) to come sit in on a gig with sax diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). While excitedly running home through bustling streets of New York City, he falls down a manhole and we follow the blue-blobbed personification of his soul as it makes its way to The Great Beyond. Unwilling to accept his untimely fate, Joe breaks through to The Great Before, a world of pre-existence where those not-yet born develop their personalities before dropping down to Earth. It’s here that Joe gets paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a stubborn soul who refuses to acquire the necessary traits to move onto the next state of being.
Director Pete Docter, the mind behind other Pixar classics like Up and Inside Out, navigates the messy entanglements of the spiritual world and the existential quandaries that it presents with deftness of a master storyteller. He’s aided greatly by a top-tier screenplay — a joint work between Docter and screenwriters Mike Jones and Kemp Powers– which skillfully sets up the terms of The Great Before and conditions by which souls are to attain their idiosyncrasies. This sets up a running joke that is my favorite of any movie I’ve seen this year, in which the ornery 22 exasperates all manner of historical figures from Muhammad Ali to Carl Jung during their efforts to pass along worthwhile attributes.
Soul finds Pixar expanding their artistic palette even further than before, incorporating Picasso-like abstractionism and a storybook aesthetic seemingly inspired by the short films of Don Hertzfeldt. Docter and company retain Pixar’s trademark photorealistic qualities during the Earthbound parts of the story, specifically impressive when it captures the characters playing their instruments with musical precision. Like the piano-playing protagonist Sebastian in La La Land, Joe sees playing jazz as his life force and is bullheaded in his persistence to pursue it. But ultimately, Soul ends on a much different note than Damien Chazelle’s almost-Best Picture winner, presenting a moral as powerful and vital as anything that Pixar has offered up to this point.
The film’s vibrant and technically proficient jazz compositions come courtesy of Louisiana-based pianist Jon Batiste, who has also served as musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for the past five years. Collaborating on their second music score of 2020 after the Netflix dud Mank, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute an electronic-based arrangement that serves as the intellectual counterpart to Batiste’s more heartfelt pieces. Pixar’s most accomplished and satisfying work in over a decade, Soul beautifully marries the head and heart in a way that’s genuinely therapeutic in a year as challenging as this one.
Score – 5/5
Also coming to streaming over the next two weeks:
Debuting on Netflix December 18th is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of the August Wilson play starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman about the titular blues singer and one of her explosive recording sessions in 1920s Chicago.
Available to stream in its entirety on Amazon Prime starting December 18th is Small Axe, a five film anthology series from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen which covers the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s.
Coming to HBO Max on Christmas Day is Wonder Woman 1984, the blockbuster superhero sequel starring Gal Gadot and Kristen Wiig that pits the titular heroine against a media businessman and a friend-turned-nemesis.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup