REVIEW: Soul (2020)

Soul Still Image
‘Soul,’ Still Image — Photo: Disney / Pixar.

Directed by Pete Docter — Screenplay by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers.

For years, critics all over the world have praised Pixar for their storytellers’ ability to make animated films that appeal to people of all ages. Often animated films will only reserve a couple of jokes to please parents and other adults, but Pixar tends to go the extra mile and provide us with films that enthrall both children and adults such as Coco, Up, and the Toy Story-films. However, with their latest film, Pete Doctor’s Soul, I think that Pixar has made an animated film that actually appeals more to adults than children. I have even had conversations with friends, who agree that Pixar’s latest great animated film actually feels like a film designed primarily for a grown-up audience. However, even though that could be true, Pete Docter’s Soul is yet another home run from an exceptional animation studio that is as good as it has ever been.

Pete Docter’s Soul follows a mildly unhappy middle school music teacher, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who still dreams of bigger things that may allow him to pursue his true passion, which is to become a professional jazz musician. His students don’t show the proper appreciation for music, and, as a result, Gardner goes through somewhat of a mid-life crisis once he is offered the teaching position as a full-time job. Though he would be allowed the opportunity to mentor aspiring musicians while earning a living, accepting the teaching position, to him, essentially means that he would be abandoning his life-long dream. So, he finds himself at a bit of a crossroads when, soon thereafter, a former student of his offers him the opportunity to audition for an opening in the jazz band that performs with the respected musician Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett).

After a successful audition, Gardner strolls down New York City streets with a spring in his step, but, as a result, he also misses an open manhole that he violently falls through. When he wakes up, he finds himself in another existence. He now finds himself as just a soul without body, and he is standing on an escalator heading towards the so-called ‘Great Beyond.’ Gardner panics since this means he will not be able to get his big break, so, before the escalator can take him into the massive white light, Gardner desperately jumps off the escalator. Instead of falling towards hell, Joe Gardner’s soul is now transported to the so-called ‘Great Before’ where unborn souls are prepared for life on Earth. Now he must pose as a soul mentor and instructor in an attempt to make his way back to his body so that he can chase his big breakthrough in the world of jazz music.

A couple of years ago, it was announced that Soul-director Pete Docter was going to become the new chief creative officer at Pixar Animation Studios. It would be difficult to find a better fit. In his time as an animation director, writer, and producer, he has had a hand in some of the most iconic and popular American animated films of the last twenty-five years. As a director, his resume is remarkable. Soul is his fourth film as his director following the completion of Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out, and I think his output is extraordinary. Monsters, Inc. is a Pixar-classic that I have a special place in my heart for, Up‘s heartbreaking opening is masterful and iconic, and Inside Out is an emotionally intelligent masterpiece.

Soul is as ambitious as, if not more ambitious than, Inside Out. It made me think of films such as Defending Your Life and, to a much lesser extent, The Lovely Bones, even though Soul is never as dark as that film. With Soul, Pixar aims to tell a story about the after-life and about purpose. It is a film that actually feels more appropriate for an adult audience as it is essentially a film about chasing your dreams while you’re having a mid-life crisis. With Inside Out, there were definitely moments that worked better for adults, but Soul‘s lesson — or, the moral of the story — feels specifically designed for an adult audience. I’m, frankly, not sure that children will find this film to be as memorable as most Pixar films. However, I do think they will enjoy it. This time around, it feels like Pixar made a film for adults, even though children can still enjoy watching it. I suspect that the film’s body-swap section will work wonderfully for children since they will get to see a cat talk, and the Great Before scenes should also allow for plenty of laughs.

But, overall, I think that Docter does succeed in telling his story in an emotionally intelligent and very affecting way. I think Docter, the co-writers, and the animators do a phenomenal job of communicating these very universal themes such as unrealized dreams and existential crises, even though some of their points about a soul’s purpose could’ve been explained more succinctly. The film did move me to tears, though. That is also, to some extent, thanks to the jazz compositions from Jon Batiste and the wonderful musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The most inventive thing about the otherworldly design of the Great Before and the ‘escalator-to-heaven’ is actually a sound effect. Whenever a soul enters the Great Beyond, as the film calls it, it actually sounds like a bug going straight into a bug zapper, which I think is a little bit chilling. The animation style is also quite impressive. I think the individual character designs in the ‘real world’ are done really well, and New York City, in general, is animated in a very beautiful way. It didn’t just make me want to go back to the Big Apple, though. 2020 was a year defined by a global pandemic, lockdowns, and social distancing, and the gorgeous animated design of New York City made me very excited about the hope for normality in 2021.

Though I don’t think this film will be quite as memorable to younger audiences down the road, I do think that Pete Docter has hit another home run with his fourth film, Soul. To me, Pete Docter’s latest film is really a celebration of life on Earth. It is a mature, ambitious, and profound mid-life crisis film about figuring out what your purpose is. I absolutely loved it.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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