Soul

I’m afraid that if I died today, my life would have amounted to nothing.”

Since releasing Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios have been world-leaders in two things – making beautiful, heartfelt movies about life; and advancing the medium of computer animation in film. They hit the ground running that regard with the story of a toy cowboy and his rivalry with the action hero astronaut that fell, with style, into the life of a young boy and his toys; producing the first ever fully computer animated film in the history of cinema; and they’ve barely missed a step since. On Christmas Day 2020, Disney released Pixar’s newest film, Soul, straight onto the Disney+ streaming platform, and gave us another example as to why Pixar are consistently one of the best animation studios in the world.

Soul follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Ray), a middle-aged music teacher in New York City who dreams of being a professional jazz musician. After getting the opportunity of a lifetime to play with a jazz legend; Joe has an accident before getting the chance to prove that he has what it takes – and ends up in the Great Before; the place where souls gather before heading to earth to become people. It is here that he meets 22 (Tina Fey, Sisters); a soul who has been resisting heading to Earth to live a life for thousands of years, and in traditional Pixar fashion, shenanigans ensue from there as Joe tries to get back to his body, and 22 tries to avoid living at all.

The souls of 22 (Tina Fey), Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) and Moonbeam (Graham Norton) in Soul

It’s difficult to talk about this film without straying into spoiler territory, but it’s also impossible to not talk about this film. Pixar have carved a niche in the market for producing beautiful, heartfelt films that deal with the realities of the human condition in succinct and entertaining ways. Soul comes together in a way that takes many of the best elements of Inside Out and combines them with the same from Coco; a smart, gentle and deeply funny film about dealing with the fragility of life, the call of our mortality, and the legacy which we may leave behind. Joe’s determination to get his life back confuses 22; they simply cannot understand what it is about life that would make a soul so desperate to return to it when they had just been given the opportunity to escape. Joe’s journey through his own mortality helps to adjust 22’s thoughts on what life truly is, and his passion is beautifully portrayed by Foxx. Joe’s motivations are not pure, and Foxx does an incredible job of presenting the conflicting position that Joe occupies; a man who is desperate to return to his life, but not the life that he had – the life he thought he deserved. He cannot stand the idea that his biggest opportunity to leave his normal, boring life behind has been suddenly snatched from him, and he’ll do absolutely anything to make that right – including attempts at manipulation along the way, which result in varying degrees of success. As companion, and often times opponent, 22 provides a lot of grounding for Joe on his journey, and Fey does a great job bringing that to the fore. During their time in the Great Beyond, 22 has been paired up with some of the greatest souls in history in continuing attempts to get them to find that last spark needed to head to Earth and engage with life, and the knowledge of everything she has seen, as well as from all the people she has met, has been realised in a character with a combination of sarcasm and naivete that Fey is an expert at bringing on screen. What 22 is lacking is sheer experience; and the complete absence of first-hand contact with what life is is what drives the drama from their perspective; with the narrative being shaped smoothly with 22’s resistance contrasting against Joe’s eagerness. As they both learn more about themselves, they begin to work more smoothly together; though things take a turn when 22 realises that Joe’s motivations as her guide have not been as pure as they first believed.

Foxx and Fey are not going it alone in this film, and the supporting roles are of note as well. Graham Norton (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga), who is best known as a TV host to most audiences, demonstrates his acting chops superbly in the role of Moonwind; a hippie with the ability to bring his soul in The Zone and navigate around it on a pirate ship made of sand. Moonwind not only helps drive the plot at key points, but is also a warm and cheerful presence, a conduit for a lot of the sillier humour; and Norton’s pre-hosting acting career prepared him perfectly for the role. Phylicia Rashad (Creed) provides an emotional lightning rod in her portrayal of Joe’s mother, Libba; a strong and independent woman who wants nothing more for her son than his safety and security, even if it means giving up on his dreams to get it. Joe’s interactions with her are key, falling at the centre to a lot of the development of Joe’s own intentions and actions as he navigates his journey back into his real life.

The most interesting supporting roles come from the the “soul counsellors” (who are all called Jerry, bar one); and not just because of the charming, funny and ethereal ensemble cast performances of Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff; but because Pixar once again innovated the very concept of animation in order to realise these characters. The soul counsellors are linear, translucent, two-dimensional characters that have been generated in a three-dimensional CGI environment. They do turn; their bodies simply switch positions, moving through themselves while also not really ever moving at all. They are humanoid but not human; we see one change their body from its humanoid shape into that of something more reminiscent of Catbus from the Studio Ghibli classic My Neighbour Totoro; and it carries fully-realised three-dimensional characters while remaining in two dimensions. It has an inside without having an inside; the 3D characters appear to be sitting on air while also clearly being inside this being. It is this which is truly mind-blowing. I don’t know much about how 3D CGI animation works, but I know enough to know that what Pixar have done with these characters shouldn’t even be possible. The studio which revolutionized animation with Toy Story; who came back a decade later and solved the problems of animating realistic humans in time for The Incredibles; who have advanced the medium of CGI animation single-handedly again, and again, and again; have managed to convincingly and realistically animate abstract metaphysical concepts into a physical space in a way that will only melt your brain when you sit down and try to write about it for a review. When we add in that these characters were then portrayed by a group of actors who represent a multitude of racial, social, religious and gender/sexuality backgrounds; I’m not sure any film has ever successfully created, scripted, cast and then realised such an abstract set of characters better than Pixar has with the soul counsellors.

Gerry (Richard Ayoade) and Terry (Rachel House), two of the soul counsellors in Soul

The animation also lends itself to another defining trait of Pixar; consistency. The studio is famous for linking its other properties together, with characters and concepts from different series dropping in as Easter Eggs (such as a mural of The Incredibles in the afterlife in Coco, which I’m sure some of you will now go back and look for); and there are some of these to find in Soul too; but there’s a consistency of animation with Inside Out which is inspired. The animation of the souls themselves is reminiscent of the animation of the emotions in Inside Out; but with some key differences to highlight the development of a soul as it becomes a person. The shading and shape are very similar, with the souls looking akin to Sadness in colour and style; but they have a more ethereal look to them, a more translucent nature to their bodies and a fuzziness around the edges. The souls of those who have lived are also the only ones to have legs; the souls who are waiting in the Great Before to head to Earth and start lives float around like ghosts; and to me that presents the implication that our emotional development comes from without our own soul; fleshing itself out as we learn more about what’s happening around us. 22 certainly presents a full emotional range throughout the journey, and Joe certainly doesn’t lose any of his own during his time in the Great Before (or in The Zone), and this development of a shared universal concept for the development of the human race, from our souls all the way to the inner workings of our emotions, is setting Pixar up to continue working with these concepts in future projects, and preparing us for a continued, secular examination of what makes us people.

However, no movie is perfect, and I did have one issue with Soul, albeit a minor one. The soul counsellor not called Jerry, Terry, is essentially the villain of this piece; and I personally felt like that wasn’t a necessary presence. Terry (played by Rachel House, Eagle vs. Shark) is the accountant of souls heading towards the Great Beyond, and when they notice an anomaly, sets out to correct it. The result is an obsessive drive to return balance to the numbers, and while this faintly stereotypical slight on accountants is quite fun when it’s allowed to be; Terry is given an unnecessarily combative personality. House portrays this brilliantly and the issue for me isn’t at all with the performance, but more with an over-riding feeling that a softer, more relaxed approach to this aspect of the narrative could have worked just as well, without taking any tension away from the story – after all, Joe’s own self-sabotaging actions when he’s working against the clock are more than enough to provide stakes to the narrative on their own.

Soul is a beautiful, charming and important film about life itself; a reminder to us all to live in the moment, seize the day and allow ourselves to experience all that life has to offer, even if it isn’t quite going to the way we had envisioned it when we got started. With great, heartfelt performances stacked from beginning to end, and another groundbreaking step forwards in terms of film animation, I implore everyone to find the time to check this one out. It’s a shame once again that such a beautiful piece of cinema has been denied the opportunity for a proper in-theatre release, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it; especially as I personally think that it may just be the most beautiful film that Pixar Animation Studios has ever produced.

See this movie.

Dave McGuckin is a theatre graduate, bar manager, former comedian and eternal film lover from Northern Ireland, now living in Canada. He began writing film reviews in 2016 for The Grade and then Great Central, both based in Leicester, England.

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An Irishman in Toronto who feels like his thoughts about modern media should be inflicted upon others, for some reason.

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