There are moments, watching Disney-Pixar’s latest release Soul, in which the ambition of the Emeryville-based animation house astounds in ways it hasn’t quite achieved in years. Moments of abstract expression that feel entirely unique to its new film, and yet wholly in keeping with the DNA that has made Pixar the standard bearer for family animation. The movie, which makes its world premiere bow this evening at a socially distanced London Film Festival screening, tackles existential themes without ever disregarding its core, family audience. And when it’s at its best, Soul is a joy to behold.
What is it that defines us? Director Pete Docter’s new movie imagines a plane of existence called The Great Before, in which our personalities are determined before we’re ever sent to Earth to be born. A plane of existence in which every soul must find its spark of particular interest with the help of lofty mentors like Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Muhammad Ali before it can take corporeal form and fulfil its destiny. And, should that destiny remain unfulfilled, it is destined to wonder an Astral Plane as a lost soul, checked out from a dull, uninspiring life.
It’s into this fantastical realm that the film’s protagonist, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), lands. As a middle-school band teacher, he has spent years trying to inspire his disenchanted students on the joy of music, all the while dreaming of a big break that never came for him: a chance to play piano on the greatest of New York City’s jazz stages.
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When he’s finally afforded an opportunity to play with the legendary jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), his excitement gets the better of him and he falls down an open manhole cover to his apparent death. Soon, he finds his soul on an escalator to The Great Beyond, destined to shuffle his mortal coil. Desperate for another chance, he backtracks into The Great Before, where he’s assumed to be a mentor and is paired up with a sparkless soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has resisted every attempt to send her to Earth.
It doesn’t get any less complicated from there, but as it luxuriates in these imagined realms which call to mind the work of Studio Ghibli and thatgamecompany’s breathtaking videogame Journey, the movie draws humor and invention in abstraction which feels downright subversive for family animation. Certainly, it will feel recognizable to those who have seen Docter’s prior film, Inside Out (he is a Pixar stalwart from the company’s inception and is its current chief creative officer), and may, indeed, be some kind of spiritual continuation. It is this school of Pixar storytelling—which also bred the likes of Up (another Docter film) and Wall-E—that gives the studio such a distinct outlook.
When Joe and 22 find themselves back on Earth—with 22 somehow trapped in Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul supplanted into the form of an emotional support cat—Soul shifts into much less ambitious realms of slapstick animated fantasy that risk undoing some of the magic it has established. It’s not that these sections of the film aren’t funny, or relatable in their own right. Simply that, in the need to find an engine for a 90-minute adventure with the requisite pace, the bigger themes of the film get sidelined and the wonder starts to subside.
It is on Earth that Soul becomes Pixar’s first feature to frontline predominantly Black characters, which makes it long overdue. Though the company’s approach to this milestone still begs questions. It is still, after all, helmed by a white director—Docter—with a Black co-writer, Kemp Powers (a noted playwright who also wrote One Night in Miami this year), who, according to interviews, was promoted to co-director deep into the process. Soul’s credits list a vast number of cultural consultants and Docter clearly took many steps to ensure its authenticity. But could the studio not have found its first African American narrative from a Black writer/director in the first place?
This question might not loom so large if Pixar hadn’t previous form with a similar setup. Coco, a film that leaned heavily on the cultural influence of the Mexican Day of the Dead, was originated and shepherded by a white director, Lee Unkrich, with co-writer Adrian Molina drafted into the same co-director spot Powers occupies on Soul. At some point, do cautious steps toward diversity become exercises in performative deflection of criticism for potential cultural appropriation? Or, perhaps, will today’s performative actions yield tomorrow’s opportunities? It will be for other critics to determine how successful Soul is at providing meaningful cultural touchpoints.
We also aren’t likely to know how well the film works on audiences, which is a shame. Once slated for a theatrical release, Soul will now bow on Disney+ December 25, where concrete measures of its popularity will likely remain internal. Pixar’s earlier release this year, Onward, which did have a limited spin in theaters before lockdown, seemed to make a muted cultural splash, but then again Soul is a considerably more substantial film.
The film’s final credit notes that Soul was made at Pixar’s Emeryville campus and, “in homes, at least six feet away from each other.” If the Covid crisis means that audiences will have to experience Soul at home too, that might still be favorable to shelving it until an unknowable future date at which theatergoing returns to normal. It’s disappointing, though, that many viewers will miss out on the film’s wonderful sound design, as well as Joe’s rich jazz led by Grammy-nominated musician Jon Batiste and the beautifully unique Great Before score provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Not to mention the extraordinary craftsmanship of Pixar’s constantly awe-inspiring visual artists, whose work is best showcased on the biggest screen possible.
If Soul’s lofty ambitions don’t fully hit the mark, the fact that one of animation’s preeminent mainstream houses can shoot for these kinds of stars at all is cause for celebration. It’s a concrete return to the Pixar of old, full of grand ideas and original execution, and a statement of intent for Docter’s steering of the Pixar ship away from endless sequels and back to inventive originals. It remains a film with a deeply emotional core that feels like it comes from a place of genuine curiosity. In short, it has soul.
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