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Pixar’s Soul premiered back on October 11, 2020 at the BFI London Film Festival and was released globally on December 25, 2020, both in theaters and on Disney+. It was Pixar’s 23rd animated feature and just like all 22 previous movies – it was yet another amazing experience.
The story of Soul is the story of two characters from two completely different worlds – in the most literal sense possible – coming together for an unexpected journey. One of them is Joe Gardner, a music teacher who is also a very passionate and talented jazz pianist, who wants to join a famous jazz band. The other is 22, an unborn soul from the Great Before that constantly causes trouble and refuses to enter the world of the living. When Joe falls down a manhole and seemingly dies, he refuses such a fate – as he had just received an opportunity to play alongside jazz legend Dorothea Williams – and ends up in the Great Before, where he has to work his way back to Earth with 22’s help.
The magic of Pixar’s storytelling is evident once more, as the studio has proven – over the past decades – that its productions are completely on par with Disney’s. The story was written by Pixar legend Pete Docter, who also directed the movie, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers. Docter has already made a name for himself with the masterpieces Up and Inside Out, but Soul still managed to be something special.
Namely, we’ve had the pleasure of watching afterlife animated features (Coco is the first that comes to mind) and also musical animated features (in a way, also Coco but also Sing, for example), but this unique combination of a modern, urban setting (Coco had the luck of being a colorful representation of Latin American society, which added a lot of fantasy to the story, and is completely different than the setting of Soul) and jazz music is something we haven’t seen before and it was amazing.
What I especially liked is the inclusion of jazz music, something which we haven’t seen that often in animated films. Jazz is not as popular as pop or rock, but it offers an amazing listening experience as it shows just how magical modern music can be and how improvisation can be an art in itself. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of the Nine Inch Nails worked on the music (and rightfully received their Academy Award), with Jon Batiste working on the jazz arrangements and compositions.
Music plays an important part in Soul but the movie is far from a musical, especially if you compare it to Disney’s traditional (non-musical, even) hits. Singing is not an important factor in Soul but the magic of creating, feeling, and living music absolutely is. There is a much deeper artistic message imprinted in the chords of Soul’s majestic story, and that is that life itself is a form of art and that just by living, we can create amazing things.
Of course, the characters also go through a process of evolution and the developmental aspect of the protagonists, especially 22, with Joe serving as more of a mentor in the context of the events, was done brilliantly. All of the characters were unique in a way and you could see how the team cared for them and wanted them to be, at the same time, both real and magical. Jamie Foxx (Joe Gardner) and Tina Fey (22) did an amazing job with the voices, but I also have to praise Graham Norton (Moonwind) and Angela Bassett (Dorothea Williams) for their contributions to the movie.
As for the technical aspects, Pixar always does an amazing job in that field so there isn’t really that much to tell. The design of the Great Before, as well as its characters – especially the adorable souls – was absolutely amazing, but the real world wasn’t that different quality-wise. The stylization was minimal and while the characters were different than actual people, the scene around them wasn’t and that was, in my opinion, truly great.
Aside from the general artistic message of the movie, which is its most important aspect, Soul also has a very important social and cultural impact. Namely, in light of the recent social events in the United States (i.e., racial issues), Soul arrived at the perfect moment to give a brilliant representation of Afro-American culture, something we haven’t really seen in mainstream animated features that came out of Hollywood. With the exception of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, one cannot name a lot of recent mainstream animated features with black protagonists. Soul does a great job in stressing out the importance of African-American culture in modern-day America, but it never stops being a universally applicable, wonderful movie that managed to avoid becoming a social commentary, which it should not have been, seeing how the main idea was developed.
Soul is a beautiful film in every aspect and we can easily place it in the upper half of Pixar’s films. There’s nothing really wrong with this movie, so I cannot really find anything I didn’t like. From start to finish, the film manages to pull you inside of its world and its ideas, keep you there and then take you back to your seat with a smile on your face. It is also one of those movies from which one can learn a lot about life and different experiences, a movie that can help viewers – both young and old, as it is one of those movies that can be equally enjoyed by both children and adults – in real-life situations.
Soul managed to win big during last year’s awards season and I can only agree that every piece of praise directed towards that movie is absolutely justified. Soul is one of the best movies of the pandemic-influenced 2020 and a movie that has easily become a classic in a very short period of time.