Soul ★★★★★

It is an understatement to say that 2020 has been a tough year for everybody. So many of us are trapped in one space, unable to make progress in our lives. Our passions are put on hold, there is overwhelming uncertainty in terms of what life will look like past the pandemic, and so many of us are unable to spend time with people we love. Within the box that is the movie landscape, the future of the film industry looks to be at its bleakest. Many movie theaters are shut down with the possibility of them being gone for good, audiences have grown accustomed to watching the latest films through streaming, and there is a never-ending catalog of films sitting on a shelf, waiting for things to clear up. Pixar’s latest film, Soul, is one of many films this year to have a rocky road to release. It was originally supposed to be released in theaters back in June, then was pushed back to November. Eventually, Disney opted to sacrifice a theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut for Christmas Day exclusively to Disney+, marking the first time in Pixar history that one of their films will completely abandon a theatrical release. Let us hope that eventually when people feel more comfortable to go back to movie theaters that Disney will look back at this film and give it the big screen treatment that it deserves. Soul is the best movie of the year.

The film follows Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, a man unsatisfied with his position as a middle school band teacher. After finally booking the dream gig that he has been waiting for his whole life, he falls in a manhole and his soul is on its way to The Great Beyond. Adamant that he is not ready to die, he finds himself in The Great Before, a realm where souls are formed before they are born. He, with the reluctant help of a soul named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, must find his way back to his body and begin an exciting new chapter in his life. Meanwhile, 22 needs to be convinced why life on Earth is so special.

Foxx delivers a beautiful performance full of passion and humanity. He helps deliver a character with aspirations, insecurities and personality that speaks to a specific type of Black man, yet at the same time does an incredible job at carrying the audience through his perspective. Fey’s 22 is an absolutely hilarious partner with her own deeply affecting arc. She has fantastic comedic timing and then can turn it around and have scenes where discovery and euphoria have a hint of melancholy. The chemistry that Foxx and Fey share feels different compared to other Pixar pairings because of what they bring out of each other from the moment their characters meet on screen.

On the note of character dynamics, Joe and his mother, voiced perfectly by Phylicia Rashād, have a relationship illustrated with great authenticity and nuance. Angela Bassett voices Joe’s idol in the jazz scene, Dorothea Williams, and every time she is on screen, she commands the audience’s attention. Two of the best scenes in the film come from Joe interacting with his mom and with Dorothea. Among the cast in the existential part of the film, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade are delightful as two of the many counselors, all of which are named Jerry, and Rachel House is a riot as Terry. She delivers a lot of the film’s biggest laughs and it was always exciting every time her character reappeared in the story. There’s also wonderful supporting roles from Donnell Rawlings, Graham Norton, Cora Champommier, Questlove, and Daveed Diggs just to name a few.

Pete Docter, who recently took over the role as the head of Pixar, is widely considered to be one of the best directors at the company, arguably their absolute best. His earlier works Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out were all powerful stories fueled by incredible imagination. His films are the best example of realizing complex, abstract ideas in ways that children can digest and not dumbing them down to the point of pandering, while also adding enough distinction to keep adults thinking and perhaps get more out of it than children. With Soul, he along with Kemp Powers as co-director craft easily the studio’s most ambitious film visually. New York City is so well realized. As a New Yorker who often gets annoyed by how other films will have typical representations of the Big Apple, this film has one of the most perfectly captured depictions of the city ever put to screen. On the opposite end, while The Great Before might visually share DNA with Inside Out at first glance, it presents as something far more distinct within the context of the film. And without getting into details, the most daring accomplishments are made when these contrasting realities mesh together. That is a remarkable sight.

The animation across the entire film is the best it has ever been from Pixar with creatively inspired representations of the unknown to the photorealistic beauty of the city landscape to the gorgeous realization of Black characters that look singular, feel familiar and evoke beauty. After the tremendous effort to represent Mexican culture in Coco, it was breathtaking to see such care to highlight Black culture. There has been much discussion about the worry that Pixar’s first film with a predominantly Black cast would shaft them to the bookending few minutes. This is an understandable concern after animated films like The Princess and the Frog and Spies in Disguise both had Black lead characters that were turned into animals for most of the film. Thankfully compared to those two films, Black characters are on screen for long stretches of Soul’s runtime not just for the sake of token representation but presenting gloriously realized Black characters throughout the film that look and feel like real people with beautiful character traits. It also makes sure not to hide Joe’s body nearly as much as those two films did.

One of the greatest strengths of the film comes with the outstanding score by Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Batiste crafted the wonderful jazz compositions that perfectly add to the atmosphere of the New York scenes. His work is so good at capturing the spirit and sound of the city. It is hard to imagine many other pieces of instrumental music from film that elicit New York as well as his pieces do. With Reznor and Ross, it would be easy to describe it as otherworldly, and boy is it, but it works so well because even though it sounds so fresh and dynamic in terms of using musical sounds on a plane that seems outside of our reality, it transports the audience to that space in such an immersive way. Like the animation, it is a near impossible task to shift between these dramatically different musical sounds. Yet, the best trait about the film’s music is how it can complement each other.

I often point to Pixar as the studio responsible for my passion for movies. My earliest memory as a child was watching Toy Story, captivated by its groundbreaking spectacle and effortless ability to transport me to a new world. Ever since, I have been deeply attached to the studio’s filmography, with more than half of their catalog ranking among my favorite films of all-time. The geniuses at Pixar crafted stories that played a significant role in helping me grow as a person. Finding Nemo brought me closer to my father, Ratatouille taught me that success is achievable, WALL•E validated my belief that love is real, Up provided me with the tools to process grief, Toy Story 3 alleviated my fears as I transitioned towards independence, Inside Out reminded me of the importance of experiencing sadness, Coco represented familiar faces from my heritage, Toy Story 4 convinced me that I have self-worth, I can go on. Soul’s greatest strength is in it is comforting embrace, reaffirming the fact that life is worth living.

I believed a lot of lies this year. I believed that my dreams were nonsensical. I believed that I was destined to be alone and that my friends, family and loved ones would be better off without me. I believed that my life was meaningless. I had a tough time communicating the feelings of depression that I was dealing with. I could not find the words to properly express how the poison in my mind was stopping me from realizing my potential or my worth. The night before I watched Soul for the first time, these dark thoughts consumed me to a degree that was scary. And I was terrified that I would not be able to bring myself out of being lost. What this film gave me were the tools to process, contemplate and evaluate the life that I am living in a way that I have never experienced with another film before. There are lines of dialogue and visual representations of the abstract concepts that have been brewing in my mind but that I was never able to explain. Now that I am able to realize these thoughts for what they are, I better understand how they were able to consume me, and most importantly I now know that all of it can be overcome. There are only a handful of movies that I have watched in my life that affected me that deeply and Soul is one of the best to have done it.

When a film is worthy of praise, it typically happens due to its technical prowess, impeccable writing, or captivating performances. It is not easy for a movie to be great at any of these things and it is already special when a movie can achieve them. Make no mistake, Soul achieves these traits in spades. If I were simply highlighting the aspects that define it as a great movie, it checks every single box. But that is not the film’s spark. The animation, the score, the voice acting, the characters, they all make this film something that is worth seeing. What makes it special, what solidifies it as a film that will stand the test of time is its ability to leave a profound impact on those who watch it. I needed Soul in my life, it changed the way that I want to live my life and it let me know that even in a hellscape like 2020, everything is going to be okay.


Link to this review on Silver Screen Xpress here.

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