“Soul” is a new film by Pixar Animated Studios and was released by Walt Disney Pictures on Dec. 25. Unlike Disney’s release of “Mulan,” this film is available to all Disney Plus subscribers for no additional charge.
The film was directed by Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, Pete Docter, who is known for his work on past Pixar films “Monsters, Inc,” “Up” and most recently, “Inside Out.”
The film follows a middle-school music teacher in New York City, named Joe Gardener, who has a passion for playing jazz. When Joe finally catches a big break with the gig of his life, he has a misfortunate accident and falls down a manhole.
Refusing to give up his big break, Joe seeks to escape the afterlife and return back to body. In his attempts to return, Joe encounters a cast of unusual characters and gains a new outlook on life.
The context of NYC’s jazz scene and its Black history was an excellent opportunity for Pixar to increase African American representation in their characters and casting. This film marks the first Pixar film to feature a Black protagonist.
Joe Gardener is played by Jamie Foxx and is joined by co-star Tina Fey as the infant soul, named 22. The film also features the talents of Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade.
Jamie Foxx was a fitting choice for the role of Joe due to his background in comedy, music and his past performance of Ray Charles in “Ray.” In the early days of getting started with his career he had an interest in music.
In an interview with USA Today, Foxx described how he relates with Joe’s passion for music by saying that was “all I wanted to do” and that “I grew my hair out. I had Jheri curl like Lionel Richie because I thought I was going to be ‘the new Lionel,’ as my grandmother would say. But comedy took off first.”
The voicework helped the development of the characters in the film but, ultimately, it is Pixar’s animation that defines them. There was a stark contrast between the colorful world on earth and the darker palette of the ethereal afterlife. Earth is shown with the bustling New York City and crowds of people. Meanwhile the afterlife is very surreal, spacious and abstract.
Despite this contrast, both sides of the film’s world contain characters with exaggerated proportions. These exaggerations of shape and form help distinguish the characters from each other, and the animators add to this a variety of facial expressions. Even the more abstract characters of the film have a distinct style that still conveys information to the audience.
One of the films greatest strengths is its original score. The timing of the music matches the pacing and events within the scenes. The divide between the events on earth and the events in the afterlife is accentuated by two separate soundtracks styles.
Pixar took on the talents of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to deliver the other-worldly electronic sounds of the afterlife, usually synth- or piano-based atmospheric tracks. Trent Reznor is known for his work under Nine Inch Nails. Most notable, however, is Reznor’s work with Ross on scoring multiple David Fincher films such as “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Mank.”
Contrastingly, the scoring of the sections that take place on earth are done by Jon Batiste. Batiste is known for his work on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and his major label debut “Hollywood Africans,” which was nominated for a Grammy award for Best American Roots performance in 2019. His tracks focus on the films jazz influences and combine with the animation to bring the performances to life.
Despite many positive elements, the film has its flaws. There is a subplot involving the tired body-swap trope. The involvement a cat in this trope feels unnecessary. Jokes in the film never quite landed with me but it can be argued that they are aimed primarily at younger audiences. There is also contrived twist toward the end of the film. It helps the film deliver its powerful resolution, but it lacks logical consistency.
The movie can feel tropey at times, but its polish and delivery help to elevate the film. Its positive message and optimistic outlook on life can be a source of encouragement, especially as we approach a new year.