The studio’s first feature to frontline black characters is a stunning work of animation, with an important message to kids and adults alike
In the final third of Soul, Pixar’s most recent metaphysical outing from the mind of Pete Docter (Monsters Inc, Up and Inside Out), we witness Joe, the lead protagonist of the movie sit down at the piano in his house — after one hell of an adventure involving an almost-afterlife, lost souls and body-swapping among other things — take a deep breath, and just let his fingers play the most gorgeous of lilting tunes.
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To explain the context leading up to this would be too much of a giveaway, but this scene — which is interspersed with stunning montages of Joe growing up along with his friends and family, discovering his love for music, and the role New York as a city plays in his life — could well rank among the greatest sequences in animation film history.
A still from Pixar’s ‘Soul’ directed by Pete Docter
What makes us who we are, as people? How do we get our personalities? Are these traits pre-determined? These are the questions Soul tries to answer by taking us along the journey of a disillusioned, middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who gets his big break one day: the chance to play piano on a grand jazz stage in NYC alongside legendary musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).
However, in his excitement, Joe ends up falling down an uncovered sewer hole and knocks himself out — hovering in a limbo-like state between life and death. His physical body is in a hospital bed hooked onto life support, but his soul has now travelled to a place called The Great Beyond. Joe isn’t quite ready to let go of his life on Earth just yet, when he is this close to realising his dreams, and somehow escapes and stumbles onto another realm —The Great Before — where our adventure truly begins.
The film tells us that before babies are born, their souls have to find a ‘spark’ — a characteristic attribute which will determine who they grow up to be — in order to be allowed passageway down to Earth. Until then, there are several famous mentors (from Abraham Lincoln to Muhammad Ali) who are happy to help them realise their true calling in life.
- Voice cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett
- Director: Pete Docter
- Co-director: Kemp Powers
- Original score: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
- Jazz compositions and arrangements: John Batiste
- Storyline: A jazz musician is transported out of his body and must find his way back to Earth with the help of an infant soul learning about herself
Joe, of course, knows that jazz has always been his thing, but is mistaken for a mentor and paired with an ‘un-sparked’ soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who is perfectly content to keep living in The Great Before and doesn’t understand what all the fuss on going down to Earth is about.
Oh, and there also several administrator-like beings called Jerry, who keep track of all the souls in both realms, and ensure a perfect balance is always maintained.
If that sounds like a lot to take in, it’s because it is. But Docter’s immersive writing and screenplay, along with some awe-inspiring animation that switches between cutesy and ingenious in equal measure, ensures that even kids can keep track of all that’s happening on-screen.
In a comical twist of fate, Joe and 22 eventually find themselves back on Earth because of a loophole — with 22 trapped in Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul inside… an emotional support cat named Mr. Mittens.
22 (Tina Fey) and Joe (Jamie Foxx) in ‘Soul’
What follows is a race against time as Joe has to make it to his first jazz recital in one piece (and try to reclaim his human avatar), while 22 slowly understands what it means to live on Earth, go for a walk in the Big Apple, eat and taste pizza, have conversations with friends — all for the first time — and enjoy the quintessential human experience.
It’s madcap in bursts and quite whimsical occasionally, but at the heart of it, Soul is an incredibly emotional story told with the deftest of touches, passing on a striking message to adults more than kids: In the obsessive pursuit of your passion, don’t miss out on appreciating the life and people around you (Carl and Ellie’s journey from Up flashes to mind).
This is Pixar’s first feature to frontline several black characters, including the lead, and marks a major milestone for the studio. Though helmed by a white director in Docter, the co-writer is Kemp Powers (the noted black playwright who wrote One Night in Miami), and his presence on the team is evident in many aspects of the storytelling.
The film is beautifully accentuated thanks to the spectacular original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and John Batiste’s jazz compositions, which elevate the musical scenes to a high. As for the visuals, it’s another knock-out win for Pixar’s animation team, making you fall in love with New York City all over again; from the sunsets and the trees to the cacophony on the streets.
Along the way, there are also some terrific cameos from Phylicia Rashad (playing Joe’s mom) and Graham Norton (Moonwind), as the growing relationship between Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey’s characters takes us through a rollercoaster of emotions.
Soul may not quite have the emotional highs of Coco or the visionary genius that shaped Inside Out, but it still a remarkable addition to Pixar’s cannon of wins that don’t just comfort the soul, but outright embrace it. Take this, 2020.
Soul will stream on Disney+ Hotstar Premium from December 25 onwards