DISNEY + FILM REVIEW: SOUL (2020)
Directed by: Pete Docter
Produced by: Dana Murray
Written by: Pete Doctor, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett etc.
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste[a]
Cinematography: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Death, the loss of childhood innocence, grief, mid-life crises, missing children, the end of the word due to human greed, ghosts, female emancipation within patriarchal society, the afterlife, use of fear as energy, neuropsychological exploration of emotions, oh, and death again are all heavy themes and subjects for a film. But they are not just from the works of heavyweight filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick. They are subjects investigated and probed and rendered entertainment in a fantastic style by the ever-impressive Pixar studio. Their latest film Soul (2020) is yet another extravaganza of high concepts, existential themes, and scintillating visual world-building.
Soul (2020) centres around Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who longs to immerse himself in a career as a jazz musician. It’s not necessarily suggested in the opening scenes as to why Joe hasn’t made it as he clearly has musical talent. However, his dominant mother Libby (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his frivolous desire to play piano, plus Joe, like many artists out there just cannot get a break. A chance arises though when he gets an opportunity to audition for esteemed singer, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s exquisite piano playing wins over Dorothea, but then tragedy strikes as an excited Joe falls down a manhole and dies. Being a Pixar film committed to venturing into the afterlife, as it did previously with Coco (2017), Joe finds himself, not in the ‘Land of the Dead’ but rather the ‘Great Before/Beyond’ instead.
As Joe moves toward the light with the many other souls he refuses to accept this is the end. He rejects the unknown glowing light of the ‘Great Beyond’ and escapes to a world full of young, old and lost souls called the ‘Great Before’. Here he meets a cynical soul called 22 (Tina Fey), who is refusing to claim the badges required to begin her own life on Earth. This is where the story gets a bit sticky for me. I mean I enjoy narratives about life, death and the afterlife including the brilliant A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and both excellent versions of Heaven Can Wait (1943 / 1978). However, Soul (2020) I think tries to do too much as 22’s story threatens to dominate Joe’s pursuit to get his life and career back. Moreover, the ridiculous sight of Joe’s soul ending up in a therapy cat also felt like a contrived lean toward giving the kids something to laugh at. Indeed, I felt this water-and-oil decision, while funny, undermined the more intrinsically vital themes within the narrative.
Ultimately though, having succumbed to the cultural pressure of signing up to Disney +, I did thoroughly enjoy Pixar’s Soul (2020). Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey create a fine double act with their brilliant comedic timing and performances. Moreover, Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade provide humorous voice support, and of course, the animation is incredible. Although I would actually have preferred to stay on the exquisitely drawn streets of New York more than the ‘Fantasiaeque’ lysergic acid look of the afterlife. Still, once again, Pixar have been clinical in delivering an intelligent film that delves into existential themes relating to the meaning of life. Joe’s journey, like his music, is full of verve, beauty and many surprising twists, ensuring his soul is certainly one that is worth saving.