Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga. Directed by Pete Docter.
Pixar’s latest movie comes at us on the streaming service Disney+ but doesn’t skimp on the ideas. Soul was destined to be the next big Pixar box office smash but wisely, Disney has punted it to streaming for festive viewing and without the additional fee that Mulan was saddled with.
Soul follows jazz pianist Joe Gardner, who upon getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in a band for a known singer, falls down a manhole and ends up in the great beyond. Trying to get back with an ancient soul, he ends up in the body of a cat, and soul 22 ends up in his body with time running out.
While that premise already sounds pretty weird and out there, there is no reason to worry, as this is a film from Pixar maestro Pete Docter. Docter is the brain behind Monsters, Inc, Up and Inside Out. Here we have a film that feels like a companion piece to Inside Out, but is also very distinct.
A lot has been made of this being the first Pixar film to focus on a Black protagonist and many writers more equipped to deal with the issues of the film have remarked that Gardner spends most of the film as a cat which marks a trend in making Black characters non-human in some way. While these are fair assessments, the film taken in isolation works.
Jamie Foxx has the perfect voice for animation, realistic and yet full of life that can help lift the animation at its peak. Pixar in the past thirty years has come leaps and bounds from the terrifying uncanny valley of Sid in Toy Story. The textures of Black hair in Soul are simply breathtaking, and stand as a testament to how far they’ve come. Much has been made in the industry about how Black hair is different from white hair, and it’s true; the animation looks like those in charge really put in the work.
Similarly, the film’s use of jazz and its connection to Black culture not only helps resonate (one assumes) with a Black audience but also helps non-Black viewers appreciate this slice of another culture that we are all aware of but often forget. It helps that the score — by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — changes with the move from the real world to the soul world, and helps the audience navigate it.
Soul is a film for everyone, that isn’t to say different things won’t resonate with different people but much like the best work – and Docter’s own impressive resume – it speaks to a fundamental question. Like Inside Out, it asks us what makes us human, like Up it suggests what we want is always what we need, and like Monsters Inc it suggests that if we look beyond our own desires we can make another person truly happy.
Much of its depth is from its connection to music and connection to a specific culture. By being specific it can by turns be universal. This is probably thanks to co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers. Powers is already headed for awards glory thanks to his writing work adapting his own play One Night in Miami, but here he carves himself a nice niche as someone who can work in both animation, and live-action and craft stories that speak to the Black community but offer something that might win over even the most prejudiced individual.
Soul is a meditation on ideas that while not unproblematic, also offer the viewers belly laughs and moments of true heart. That it marries both of these together so perfectly speaks to how when Pixar is on fire it’s a studio that is unrivaled.
Powers might want to clear space on his mantlepiece; he might be walking home with more than one award come Oscar night.