For 25 years, Pixar has proved themselves time and again as the kings of emotive animation storytelling, from their debut with Toy Story in 1995, right through to 2020’s Onward, they have proven the benefits in animation when it comes to telling important and complex stories, all the while making them accessible for a younger audience.
This was of course intended to be a theatrical release, but like many films in 2020, the wide closure of many theatres forced its release online. Unlike the release of Mulan on Disney+ though, there wasn’t any additional fee attached to its release, so it was available to all subscribers from the start, which is probably fantastic for new subscribers, giving them a reason to subscribe to get access to a new film, but I am hesitant to heap too much praise on it, as it still intends on continuing the opportunistic ‘Premium Access’ tactic again this year.
Putting issues of corporate greed aside though, I was very much anticipating Soul‘s release. Firstly due to Pixar’s consistency, and secondly because of its intriguing concept.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a passionate jazz musician who has been awaiting his big break for most of his life. While making ends meet by teaching music at a middle school, a call from a former student lands him the gig of his dreams. On cloud nine after his long-overdue breakthrough, Joe becomes a victim of an unfortunate accident and soon finds himself in ‘The Great Before’, a hypothetical space between life and death. He must guide an unborn soul (22, voiced by Tina Fey) while trying to return to his Earthly body.
Soul is a perfect example of a story that can only be told through the art of animation. It deals with concepts that would be too abstract to take on in live-action. Its complexity also hides a lot of warmth and humour that is most at home in an animated form.
One of the best things about Pixar as creators is their ability to take complex situations and concepts and make them palatable for both a younger and a more mature audience. Take, for instance, Inside Out, which was ostensibly a film about how to properly manage your emotions, and how to deal with sadness, but it was told with such pathos and liveliness that it made it entertaining on just a base level of understanding. It wasn’t pitched too far over the heads of younger viewers because it had funny characters and moments, and yet it also wasn’t insulting to a more mature audiences intelligence.
Speaking of Inside Out, you could make a case for this film being a thematic successor to it, as they both deal with abstract concepts (emotions in Inside Out, and well, souls in Soul) that should arguably be a little too philosophical for a younger audience, but both manage to convey an emotional and poignant message regardless. They’re both set in hypothetical worlds that can’t be understood by the regular human consciousness, they’re fundamentally works of philosophical brilliance, and yet, there’s a simple charm to them that makes them universally understandable.
The subject of souls, and life after death, is a tricky one for a kids film, to begin with. You have to balance an unbiased view of the subject, without insulting anyone in the audience. It’s certainly brave for Pixar to take on this topic, and it was smart of them to keep death and the afterlife as ambiguous and abstract, yet still very artfully, as possible.
Its philosophy is not so much about what happens after death as it is about enjoying life while it’s there, and appreciating your reasons for living. It’s incredibly clever in its handling of the material and in how it conveys this through its characters.
Speaking of characters, there are very few actual human characters in the narrative, most of the time they’re beings that occupy ‘The Great Before’ which apparently doesn’t make them people at all, they’re just forms that take a shape that is feasible to a human mind, and yet still ethereal in appearance. This is a fairly ‘far-out’ idea to begin with, but it does allow for some very funny interactions and dialogue moments between them (incidentally, Richard Ayoade was a great choice of voice).
Admittedly, this makes it difficult to properly assess the central relationship of the film, that being the connection between Joe’s soul and 22, a new soul who has been avoiding going to Earth and living for centuries. There’s some very intelligent, and more to the point funny, montages of 22 and her previous ‘mentors’ who include Mother Theresa, Marie Antoinette, and Muhammed Ali, all trying and failing to help 22 achieve her ‘Earth pass’.
The sequences in ‘The Great Beyond’ are examples of the film, and indeed the creative team, at its creative peak. They introduce the concept of assigning personalities and passions before these ‘souls’ are born on Earth, it’s a very complicated idea that could have easily gone wrong. When you’re dealing with things like the afterlife and sous, the potential is there to be preachy, or to dumb it down for the kids, but Pixar never shy away from such issues, and rarely do they under or over-cook an idea.
When they are engineering relationships between human characters too, they manage to find an elusive sweet spot of using recognisable frameworks but adding just enough fresh personality to not make it seem derivative. For example, a section of the film is dedicated to the relationship between Joe and his mother, who disapproves of his ambitions as a musician. Now, we’ve seen this kind of dynamic before, many times in fact, and it could have been a cliché, but time and effort are put into showing the characters talk about their problems and properly voice their frustrations. It isn’t anything ground-breaking, but it just adds a nice cherry on top of this films already-generous trifle.
I also appreciate the portrayal of African-American life and culture in such a mainstream production. Real care is put into portraying their lives, not in any stereotypical way, but in a way that feels authentic. The jazz sequences and the scene in the barbershop about half-way through are great examples of this.
The voice cast is, as usual for Pixar, stellar. Jamie Foxx does a great job as a downbeat dreamer, and Tina Fey adds real life to a being who isn’t actually a human character. The supporting cast who make up the people who surround Joe are also noteworthy, Their characters help flesh out the world in which Joe lives, bringing it to life. There’s also a surprisingly fun role for Irish TV host Graham Norton, whose character Moonwind adds a little more depth to ‘The Great Before’.
Watching Pixar films always gives me a uniquely joyful feeling of warmth, and Soul is no different. An exploration of a complicated concept that could only work in animation, given life by the very best the art form has to offer, and lovingly portrayed by a talented cast.
Another example of the endless potential of animation, that feels like it was made with genuine love and warmth, Soul shows you what can be achieved, and provides something for all walks of life. Another home-run from Pixar.