Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
When you think of the word "life," what's the first thing that would come to mind? There have been certain questions and theories since the beginning. Many ponder one what is the meaning or purpose of life. Admittedly, there are no clear answers since life is complicated. There are neither right or wrong answers; we make and enjoy the most out of it. If there's any animation studio would be able to develop a movie with a challenging theory like this, it's Pixar Animation Studios.
Having been in development since 2016, Pixar animator Pete Docter was determined to finish his project after conducting research and collaborating with comedian Tina Fey. It was also numerously reported to be the studio's most unique project yet. It was originally scheduled to released in summer 2020. Unfortunately, due to a series of unexpected turn of events, the film got delayed numerous times until Disney decided to release it exclusively on their Disney+ streaming service, free of charge. After months of waiting, is the wait worth it?
When a music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) accidentally winds up in the world of souls, he must teach a rebellious soul (voiced by Tina Fey) about life in order to return home.
Pixar's Most Philosophical Concept
On paper, this story sounds kind of cliched and predictable. The main character tries tricking his new friend in order to achieve a personal goal, but eventually he forms a bond and later tries to set things right. While that may sound true in some regard, it is easily gets dwarfed once we get to the main components of the story: the concept and execution.
Once Joe enters into the soul world, new questions begin to storm over anyone's mind: What is the Great Before? How are souls are made? What gives them personalities? How do they find their spark? What is a lost soul like? All of these questions are cleverly answered thanks to the world-building, creativity, and character-driven arcs throughout the movie. Without spoiling the film, the belief of pre-existence and the purpose of life will lead to emotional and tear-jerking moments that everyone will relate out.
Since the movie is also geared towards families, the story also lightens the mood with some comedy. Thankfully, the dialogue, visual gags, and performances bring out legit laughs and keeps the drama in balance.
Real & Abstract Animation
Upon first impression, many have speculated that the art direction would be too similar to Docter's previous project, Inside Out, and wouldn't stand out from the others. Yes, the character designs from both films are conceptually similar where the human characters look and move realistically while the soul characters look simplified and abstract while they move in a subtle, cartoony matter. But once we go deep into this new world of souls, the animators' imagination truly begin to shine.
On the reality side, the setting of New York City is large and bustling full of life. Every street, every building, every texture is fully detailed and definitely gives out that authentic New York feeling whether you take a subway, get a haircut from a barber or perform at a jazz club. Speaking of the latter, the animators spent a heavy time of research when conveying African-American culture urbanely or musically. With co-director/writer Kemp Powers' contribution, the main character is based on his personal life. He is also historically speaking the first African-American Pixar director. Bonus points for the use of effects animation whenever the characters' get into "the zone."
We then explore the Great Before, or its new rebranded name "You Seminar," if you prefer. It is a colorfully blue landscape where all new souls are born. The new souls get characterized in the "Excitable Pavilions." Afterwards, mentor souls will be assigned with their new "soulmates" in order to complete their personalities through either a space full of the mentor's memories or "Hall of Everything". Once their personality is full, they will enter Earth through a portal. There is also "The Zone" which is a space between personal and spiritual spectrum where souls would be engulfed in their own world of talent. Be careful; if you lose focus or lack a purpose, you will become a monstrous entity covered by black sand of negativity. As for the Great Beyond, it has an escalator for deceased souls that will literally elevate them towards the light. Watch your step because if you fall, you will travel through the "Astral Plane" in-between the realms. Among the soul characters, we also have the counseling spirits that have a flat, outline, 2-D appearance that literally stand-out among the third-dimensional characters/backgrounds with the ability to shapeshift into any space, line and perspective possible. It is an art style quite comparable to the character designs in the TV special, Olive, the Other Reindeer. With all of these visuals, it goes to show that Pixar definitely knows how to bring any imaginative idea to life.
If the concept and animation wasn't enough, Soul has a cast of memorable characters that will lift up anyone's spirit. Our main characters for this story are Joe Gardner, a middle-school music teacher struggling to become a jazz musician and Number 22, a soul who spent eons in the Great Before with a dim view of life. With outstanding performances by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, both characters have great chemistry, different points of view and work off each other naturally. In the New York side, we have: Joe's critical yet well-meaning mother Libba, Joe's former student and band drummer Curley, therapy cat Mr. Mittens, the skeptic musician Dorothea Williams, and the friendly barber Dez. Each of them are basic but likeable characters that help benefit the ups and downs of life, especially onto Number 22's perspective. In the soul world, besides the newly created souls and counselors that are all humorously named Jerry, there are two exceptions that play a bigger role on enhancing the world-building. The first is Moonwind, a spiritual sign twirler that specializes finding and restoring lost souls. In other words, a character who can connect to both the human and soul world. The second is Terry, a spirit accountant whose job is counting souls that go the Great Beyond. She is more of the movie's antagonist where she is desperate to catch Joe by going to extreme lengths. These characters will definitely bring a smile on anybody's face. You will feel like you want to have a fun time and live up to the fullest with them.
Lastly, the soundtrack is outstanding with the music composed by John Batiste. Since the movie is about a music teacher becoming a jazz teacher, the movie will NOT disappoint you one bit about the jazz genre. The jazz score is authentic and blends best of both words with love and care that the studio provided. This music will really get you into "the zone" sooner or later.
Overall, Soul is the best animated feature of 2020. It's ranked up there with the Pixar classics. Comparing this movie and Onward, they are both creative and entertaining films. But, Soul shines brighter with its proactive concept, insightful animation, unforgettable characters and an upbeat soundtrack. For those who had a rough or stressful year, this movie is your calling card. It will make you smile, it will make laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you do all the above. It was a shame that all the animators had worked really hard on it and Disney had a difficult choice sacrificing its theatrical release onto streaming instead. Okay, technically, the movie is playing in other countries' theaters that don't have Disney+. Nonetheless, this movie is a must-watch and feel-good experience for everybody of all ages. Find that spark and pray our futures will be full of heart and soul.