'Soul': Film Review | London 2020

Miles ahead and sublime in every sense.
12/25/2020

Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey voice characters in Pixar's latest feature, a tribute to the vitality of jazz, New York City and the immaterial world.

There are undoubtedly superfans out there who think otherwise, but not every film from the Pixar Studio is perfect. Some fall on the spectrum somewhere between merely adequate and fitfully delightful (like the last, the sweet but underwhelming Onward, or the okay but entirely unnecessary Toy Story 4). Some are even, dare we say it, not good (the Cars franchise). But the brand is impressively consistent enough to come up with something original and innovative pretty much every time, a batting average way higher than most other studios.

They have also produced real masterworks, contributions to the animation canon up there with the best from their parent company Disney or Studio Ghibli. For me, Toy Story and Toy Story 3, The Incredibles and above all WALL-E are the best. Arguably, Ratatouille, Brave and Up are up there too, works with flaws but also stretches of undiluted, limpid genius.

While the music is still ringing in my ears and the tears still drying, it may be too soon to be sure, but I think the company's latest feature, Soul, premiering at the BFI London Film Festival, lands somewhere in the top echelons. Directed by Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) and co-directed by Kemp Powers (author of play-turned-film One Night in Miami), equipped with a screenplay and story credited to Docter, Powers and Mike Jones, this densely packed, exquisitely executed and just a teensy bit batshit film is peak Pixar. It's a vintage mix of the company's intricate storytelling, complex emotional intelligence, technical prowess and cerebral whimsy on dexamethasone.

The fact that it is also embedded in African-American culture and features a diverse voice cast is another sparkling facet. But thankfully, like Coco with its Mexican setting and Latino input, Soul manages to avoid feeling tokenistic or patronizing. Indeed, identity in a very specific psychological sense is core to the metaphysics of Soul — as were the anthropomorphized emotions of Joy and Sorrow in Docter's Inside Out — and cultural legacy is also central here (the protagonist is a Black man living in outer-borough New York City, and very much part of the Black community). But racial identity isn't really the point; in the end, it's a movie more about jazz and spiritual essence — soul, if you will, in every sense of the word.

Once again, in true Pixar style, the story is constructed in such a way as to offer both a jaunty adventure in which the hero has a time-sensitive goal that must be met and a parable about more intangible themes, like mortality, the purpose of life, loss, skill and what makes us what we are. There are explainers on YouTube in circulation that posit that all Pixar and Disney movies are part of one big narrative universe. But Soul seems less about filling out details in a fictional landscape than limning a kind of cartoon humanist non-denominational cosmology — a mix of Christianity and Buddhist notions filtered through C.S. Lewis' 1945 novel The Great Divorce and Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), with a bit of What Dreams May Come (1998) psychedelic kitsch thrown in for good measure.

In present-day Queens, Joe Gardner (voiced smoothly by Jamie Foxx) makes the rent by working as a middle-school band teacher. He's good at it, and inspires his pupils, but all he really wants to do is play jazz piano. On the very day that the school principal offers him a full-time job with benefits, he also gets a chance to audition for a spot in the quartet led by famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). But while on his way back from the audition, Joe manages to avoid a series of cartoon-cliché endangerments (falling bricks, scattered banana peels, oncoming traffic) only to fall through an uncovered sewer hole and knock himself out and into a state somewhere between life and death.

Transmogrified from a lanky man in his mid-30s into a minty-blue blob with Joe's glasses but no nose, our hero's soul finds himself on a giant travelator in a black void heading into a massive white light that swallows each soul that enters it with a small pop and fizzle like the last pixel snuffing out on an old TV set. Panicked, Joe scrambles away from the light and ends up in the Great Before, some kind of inter-dimensional space where unborn souls are assigned personality traits before birth, visualized as bizarre pavilions not unlike the personality islands in Inside Out. There, Joe is assigned by the 2-D-ish line-drawing incorporeal beings that look like late Picasso sketches, all named Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade among others), to mentor a troublesome unborn soul named merely 22, who sounds like a "middle-aged white lady" (she's voiced by Tina Fey).

Joe must help 22 find her spark, an indefinable something that will finally fill out her profile and ready her for the transition to earth. The hitch is that 22 doesn't want to go there, and when dragged through space by a Joe who is determined to make his debut gig with Dorothea, body-swapped antics ensue (with hilarious consequences).

If all that sounds complicated, it is, and yet Docter and Powers and their army of collaborators contrive to make the massive dumps of information about this quasi-Heavenly world easy to digest. It's essentially just like a big Silicon Valley campus — like, say, Emoryville where Pixar is based — where everyone is super nice and polite in a corporate-culture kind of way, if occasionally a bit overzealous about rules. The latter is especially true of quota-minded Terry (New Zealander actor Rachel House), the closest the film has to a villain. Meanwhile, the New York City that Joe and 22 end up in feels extraordinarily realistic, right down to the grease on a pizza slice being dragged by a rat, and yet also congruent with the exaggerated, caricatured features of the characters.

Volumes could be written about the film's varied textures and how they map out different realms and moods. At the same time, light — an entity Pixar has always excelled at mimicking and modeling in its animation going back to their logo-inspiring short Luxo Jr. — feels intensely palpable here, from the almost minute photon in the pointillist fields of color in the Great Beyond to the more photorealistic treatment of the New York world. It's worth noting that while Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben are credited as the film's directors of photography, the filmmakers also drew on advice from Bradford Young, the cinematographer who shot Selma, Arrival and many music videos and who apparently gave tips on lighting for the performance sequences.

Featuring possibly the best soundtrack in a Pixar film since the first Toy Story, Soul sports a jazz score that is not just an adornment to the story or an emotional enhancement, but an utterly integral part of the narrative. Joe's talent for improvisation, and for listening to others, are key to his development as a character and foundational to what he manages to teach 22.

At the same time, the animation finds a way of embedding the music right into the colors and shapes of the film that's pure magic and pays homage to the rhythms and phrasing of jazz and hip hop artists, some of whom appear as voice actors or musicians in the film (including Questlove, Daveed Diggs and John Batiste). The last, best known for his appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, composed and arranged the jazz numbers that are layered in with the original score written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; per the film's press notes, reference footage of Batiste playing was used to make sure every note Joe plays in the film was accurate. The hand animation — fluttering, graceful, lightning-fast — will be studied by students of the medium with awe in years to come.

It's all so dazzling that it takes a few hours for the shine to settle, and in the afterglow viewers may start to wonder if some of the film's complex theology makes emotional sense. Likewise, some may feel the celebration of jazz as a sort of metonymy for Black experience may be a bit on the nose; that may be a debate best thrashed out by someone who isn't a middle-aged white lady like myself. (As a cat owner, I do have one major complaint. The otherwise adorable Mr. Mittens, the therapy cat who comes to play a significant role in the film, is always referred to with he/him pronouns — even though the creature's white, black and orange "calico" coloring is found almost always on female cats. Either Mr Mittens is one of those rare male cats with an extra chromosome, which would account for his tri-color coat, or it's a rare slip-up from a studio best known for its scrupulous research.)

As this review went to press, the plan was still to release the film straight onto Disney+, the streaming platform owned by the studio, instead of giving it a theatrical release. That's a pity, as it's a work that especially benefits from a theatrical-sized screen and a top-of-the-range sound system; immersion into its world is vital to the film's impact. As with jazz itself, you have to plunge in as deep as you can go to really feel it.

Production company: Pixar Animation Studios
Distributor: Disney
Voice cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (a.k.a. Questlove), Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, Calum Grant, Laura Mooney, Peggy Flood, Zenobia Shroff, June Squibb, Ochuwa Oghie, Jeannie Tirado, Catherine Cavadini
Director: Pete Docter
Co-director: Kemp Powers
Story and screenplay: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Story supervisor: Kristen Lester
Producer: Dana Murray
Executive producers: Dan Scanlon, Kiri Hart
Directors of photography: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Production designer: Steve Pilcher
Visual effects supervisor: Michael Fong
Animation supervisors: Jude Brownbill, Bobby Podesta
Character supervisors: Michael Comet, Junyi Ling
Sets supervisor: Jun Han Cho
Original score: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Jazz compositions and arrangements: John Batiste
Casting: Kevin Reher, Natalie Lyon
Venue: BFI London Film Festival 2020
  

PG rating; 100 minutes