Review – Soul (2020)

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Angela Bassett

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked audiences and turned narrative cinema on its head when he killed off his protagonist Marion Crane only a third of the way through Psycho. He could hardly have imagined that sixty years down the track he would be one-upped by a kids movie that manages to kill its protagonist before the opening title card. Of course, Pixar has made a habit of challenging our expectations of kids films, but perhaps more than ever before, to call Soul a kids movie at all is some combination of reductive and misleading. 

Talented pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) makes ends meet with part-time work as a high school band teacher but his real dream is to play jazz. On the verge of resigning himself to his fate and accepting a full time role at the school, Joe is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to play with Dorothea Williams’ (Angela Bassett) jazz quartet. But before his dream can be realised, Joe up and dies. However,our protagonist’s death is just the beginning of a creative exploration of life, purpose, passion, determinism, nihilism. You know, standard kids’ stuff. In a desperate attempt to get back to his life, Joe jumps off the conveyer belt ushering him towards the Great Beyond, and lands in the Great Before, where pre-born souls are given their personalities and passions in preparation for life. Mistaken for one of their mentors, Joe is paired up with Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a thorn in their side who has no desire to be born. The two strike up a deal: Joe will help 22 get her Earth card and then she’ll let him use it to get back to his body so she can stay in the Great Before.

When Pixar films are at their best, it is like the child and parent sitting next to each other are experiencing two entirely different films on the same screen. Up, Wall-E and Inside Out are beloved by children and adults alike but for completely different reasons. Soul attempts this double communication too. For the adults, there is an existential reflection on purpose and passion, and their importance to ones sense of self, of striving, obsession, and how we ultimately find fulfilment. For the kids there is a bright and colourful adventure which adheres pretty closely to the Pixar odd-couple-on-a-quest mould with an added body-swap element. However, rather than being both things simultaneously, it somewhat uncomfortably flip-flops between them, struggling to find a balance. This discomfort comes from the fact that it seems significantly more interested in the grown-ups’ story than the it does in the children’s. While executed in a brilliantly imaginative way, there is no escaping the fact that a child in the audience has to sit through a good 30-45mins of a middle aged man dealing with his mortality before they get to the silly, body-swapping adventure, passages which feel significantly less inspired and more conventional. It almost feels like Pete Docter (director) and Kemp Powers (co-director) wanted to make a film for grown ups but felt an obligation to throw a bone to Pixar’s traditional audience. It is difficult to imagine Soul being among any kid’s favourite Pixar movies, and the fact that Disney so willingly placed iton Disney+ without any attempt at a theatrical or premium VOD release suggests they didn’t consider it to be a likely cash cow. That said, the film that is targeted at a more mature audience is among the best work that Pixar has done. 

A pre-death Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) in New York

Splitting time between Earth and the after(or before)life, the duality of the narrative gives Docter the opportunity to show off Pixar’s range as an animation house, from the incredible photo-realism of the New York scenes to the more impressionistic Great Before. The character design is equally diverse, from the human Joe, to the translucent, iridescent blue blobs of the souls, to the Picasso-like line drawings that staff the Great Before. The creation of these two distinct spaces is aided by the film having dual scores, with Jon Batiste providing the scenes from Joe’s New York life with a jazz score that feels culturally and geographically authentic, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bring a more ethereal quality to the Great Before. Where Soul is at its most striking, however, is when it takes us between these spaces. As Joe sits at his piano we watch the world fade away and through light and colour it visualises that transcendent experience of being ‘in the zone,’ of being so swept up in that thing you love doing that time and space seem to leave you behind. 

There has been a lot made of Soul’s adherence to a supposed animation trope that see’s black protagonists transformed into animals. That this is discussed as a trope says more about the general dearth of animated films featuring black protagonists than the abundance of examples of this particular narrative device. While there is a body swap element to Soul, it is, importantly, not used as a mechanism to separate Joe from his blackness or his culture. Rather, it allows Joe to observe his life from a distance. While Pixar films have been a lot of things, racially diverse is not one of them. Coco was a breakthrough for the studio on that front, but Soul is equally significant. Where Coco concerned a culturally specific narrative about the Day of the Dead, Soul’s core narrative could be about anyone but it is placed in culturally specific setting and as such becomes an exploration of a black life.

Soul is an uneven film, but at its best it absolutely soars. While its relative lack of appeal to children make it unlikely to take its place in the pantheon of truly beloved Pixar films, it does make you wonder whether the studio would ever be willing to make a film that was unashamedly targeted at a more mature audience. While Western screen culture has been wed to the understanding of animation as being first and foremost for children in a way that Asia definitely has not, that is starting to change and you wonder if Pixar’s remit might expand to embrace that. 

Rating: ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Soul? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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