Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers.
Featuring the voice talents of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, John Ratzenberger, Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, and Angela Bassett.
A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
On the plane of existence somewhere between life and death lies the You Seminar, Soul‘s central hub for Pixar’s unprecedented brand of imaginative beauty. It’s a place for souls that have recently left an unconscious or deceased body to lecture new souls on how to find their passion and understanding their own personality before entering the body of an unborn baby. Not only is this wholly unique (to say that it’s a riff on emotions from Inside Out would be disrespecting both animated features), it’s the kind of demiurgic playground fertile for celebrated Pixar storyteller Pete Docter to illuminate abstract concepts and break down the ingredients of individual identity with an appropriate mixture of humor and drama.
Co-directed by One Night in Miami screenwriter Kemp Powers (both of which also write alongside senior creative member Mike Jones), Soul centers on Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in a midlife crisis teaching jazz music to 12-year-olds while perpetually trying to get his own career off the ground. Whether he’s a failure or not is up to debate, although his mother (Phylicia Rashad) seems to think it’s time to move on from chasing dreams and accept the incoming offer from the middle school to go from part-time to full-time, benefits and all. At one point she point-blank says to Joe “you can’t eat dreams for breakfast” who retorts “then I don’t want to eat” making for a deep cut exchange for anyone that’s ever tried their hands at anything artistically.
Complicating matters on whether to say yes to the full-time position is a potentially huge break that would see Joe playing in a band led by somewhat of a local celebrity voiced by Angela Bassett. After a brief tryout where Joe becomes locked-in to performing (something explained as The Zone in one of the many You Seminar examinations of how these psychological processes work), he excitedly trots around the city making his way back home, albeit highly distracted causing a mishap that renders him unconscious and hospitalized, whereas his soul (in miniature blue sentiment being that speaks exactly like and resembles him) becomes detached from his body.
After some tours around the vast existential space (which includes gates to the afterlife inside stunning recreations of darkness and nothingness), Joe learns that his purpose as a mentor is to teach the unborn soul partnered with him what it means to be human before actually becoming human. Specifically, the primary goal is to figure out what sparks the soul, which splinters the theme off into finding your passion and how it feels to live for something. Soul is also bold and explores other means of becoming detached from the human body, and will most likely also resonate with anyone that suffers from depression or disassociation disorders.
Joe’s really only concerned with getting back to his own body, so after being partnered with 22 (Tina Fey), one of the earliest souls known to existence that seems to hate everything and has no desire to live, Joe decides to steal her badge for finding her spark rather than fulfill his role. He can’t earn the badge himself; he’s unsure of what he wants out of life. Nevertheless, they have to work together as they come to profound realizations about themselves. It should go without saying that Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are outstanding, nailing the dramatic elements while having hilarious comedic chemistry as she tends to annoy him (and several historical icons ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Marie Antoinette in a funny reoccurring gag).
It also works in Soul‘s favor that the movie is not restricted to the You Seminar, leading to some scenes in the real animated world that involve everything from body-swapping to fish-out-of-water scenarios to a childlike wonderment of living again for the first time. In some regards, the film seems to have transcended a standard three-act structure, functioning as a concept that continuously expands to philosophically powerful results. One such example is a group of hippies that use meditation to detach from their own bodies so they can help lost souls. There’s the sensation that the filmmakers are squeezing every last drop of imagination from the entire premise.
Soul also features moving jazz compositions from Jonathan Batiste, while letting Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the Nine Inch Nails members usually are heard on collaborations with David Fincher, so working with Pixar is a daring change of pace that has paid off) handle the existential music that, when playing over certain scenes, is enough to get the tears flowing. Yes, there’s a goofy accountant soul running around trying to figure out if someone has escaped, an adorable cat that factors into the story more than expected, and hijinks amongst various planes of life, but like the best Pixar efforts, Soul is emotionally complex and life-affirming. It’s a major accomplishment not just in animation, but American filmmaking period.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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