Disney-Pixar’s new film Soul is probably one the only things we will want to remember about this year. With a Christmas release date and Pixar’s stamp of approval, it was safe to assume that Soul would be the feel-good film we all needed to end such an eventful year. What we got instead felt nothing like what we wanted but was everything we needed.
Soul is the second film to be released by Pixar Animation Studios in 2020 and was originally intended for a theatrical release before its digital Christmas day release on Disney+. The film follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he travels through “The Great Before,” the place where souls get their personalities and develop their interest, to find a way to reunite his soul with his body. He soon finds that in order to achieve this, he must help a wandering soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) find their spark. Alongside Foxx and Fey are the voices of Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett and Ahmir Khalib Thompson (better known as Questlove).
The voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett have all become iconic each in their own right and in the beginning, I feared that the characters would be overshadowed by the voices portraying them. The exact opposite happened. Phylicia Rashad’s wise and motherly voice that we all grew to love in her legendary role as Ruth in The Cosby Show was perfect for Joe’s mother. Angela Bassetts powerful yet even tone radiated through the screen as jazz powerhouse, Dorthea Williams. Tina Fey, funny as ever, brought to life the chaotic yet endearing spirit, 22, with her natural humor and wit. Then there’s Jamie Foxx. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could have played the role of Joe Gardner after seeing how well Foxx executed it. My worries about the characters and their stories being overshadowed by the big names attached were put far into the back of my mind just minutes into the film.
The animation of Joe’s mundane life juxtaposed by the bright animation of “The Great Before” was stunning. The journey you took with Joe as he traveled from the real world to the soul world and back again was perfectly seamed together and the moments where the two worlds wove into one were almost flawless. Pixar is no stranger to creating their own worlds and transporting their viewers as they transport the characters themselves. However, looking at similar Pixar films like Coco and Inside Out, Soul seems a little more muted in comparison. Light and reality seemed to be a big focus in Soul’s animation whereas Coco and Inside Out utilized vibrant colorization in the worlds we were transported to.
Screenwriters Mike Jones and Kemp Powers really created a brand-new story with Soul and I would argue that there was really no better time for it than right now. The plot seemed pretty standard for Pixar but there turned out to be a lot more depth to it than originally expected.
Many of the themes hit harder with the current circumstances of the world. COVID-19 has put a wrench in so many people’s lives and plans for their future and this film centers on finding what motivates and inspires you to live on. It’s similar to Inside Out in the very basic way of understanding what’s going on inside of you, but it adds an element of self-awareness and encourages a deeper level of introspection to understand what makes you feel like you’re truly living. In a time where many of us may be questioning whether we are on track to accomplish all the things we want in life, Soul came at the perfect time to remind us that life is a sum of the little moments and we have to make those moments count. Pixar again gave us a film that adults can learn from and enjoy in a way that can also be easily digested by younger viewers.
However, one of the biggest themes in Soul is music. Specifically jazz or “Black improvisational music.” This is really where the film felt anything other than perfect. For a movie so heavily centered around music, I was left very hungry for more by the time the end credits rolled around. The layers of brass, bass, drums, piano and of course saxophone made sure no one forgot that jazz played a leading role in Joe’s life and the big musical moments that were there had the intended effect in drawing out emotions. The score was also done beautifully and matched the ethereal ambiance of “The Great Beyond” and the bustling city of New York, but I just wanted more.
What can’t go unacknowledged is Soul’s depiction of black culture. From Joe’s interactions with his mother and her friends to his visit to his barbershop, Disney and Pixar were able to infuse the warmth of Black culture into some of the most mundane activities. However, when it was first announced that Soul would be centered around Pixar’s first black lead in a film, I was both excited and disappointed. Excited to see that Pixar would be telling Black stories yet disappointed to see that once again, Disney would draw in a largely Black audience only to portray their leading Black character as something other than Black for the majority of the film. I was pleased to see that this wasn’t necessarily the case but was still left wondering why Black characters need to be turned into things like frogs and spirits to have their stories told.
While Soul wasn’t the journey I expected, I still enjoyed it. The ending didn’t wrap everything up exactly how I wanted, and it left me wanting more but in hindsight, that seems appropriate for this story. I would have loved to see all that became of the characters I grew invested in, but this was a story about separating passion from obsession and finding inspiration in the world around us. We don’t have to see everything that comes next because that’s always uncertain. We can only go on and hope to find that spark for ourselves. This film is a win for Pixar, and I hope they use it as a steppingstone for bringing more Black stories to our screens in the very near future.
Filmnetic Grade: A-
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