I have seen “Soul” twice. The first time, I greatly enjoyed it, but found certain elements to be almost too otherworldly to buy into. Upon reflection of its philosophical themes, I realized I needed to watch “Soul” a second time to really appreciate the artistic concepts that created such an intriguing and mystical atmosphere. The second time through, I had completely bought into its metaphysical concepts, and I absolutely loved the entire experience. “Soul” is the best Pixar film since “Ratatouille,” and although “Ratatouille” may not be a film that everyone loves as much as I do, “Soul” is a film that will appeal to everyone, young and old. “Soul,” I think, is the pinnacle of what Pixar has been striving to achieve for nearly two decades now. It is their most mature piece of work as well as their most technically impressive.
Pixar films have long been established as films made for kids that adults can also enjoy. “Soul” delivers a message that may actually be more suited for adults than children. Though I suspect that children will still have a fun time with the film, they may not be able to identify with the lead character as well as their parents will. Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a complex, adult character. Joe is a middle school band teacher who wants to make his big break as a jazz musician. When his soul and body are separated in a freak accident, he goes on a metaphysical journey that redefines him as a character.
While I thought “Inside Out” was a charming film with cute characters, it lacked real depth regarding personality traits, and it seemed to throw out all elements of the conscious mind (i.e. logic) in favor of the unconscious. “Soul” takes a simple premise and transforms it into a profound discovery that hit me not just in my heart, but also in my mind. There is hardly anything that I would describe as marketable in “Soul,” although I suppose the souls might make cute plush toys.
The animation is simply incredible – scenes in NYC look photorealistic. The high concept of “Soul” is unique in the Pixar catalog. As is to be expected, the creative team behind “Soul” put a lot of thought behind every design element in the picture. Following “Inside Out,” director Pete Docter found himself pondering the origins of human personalities and what defines our purpose in life. Over the course of several years, the creative team spoke to priests, rabbis, Buddhists, and other spiritual experts as they worked to develop the look of souls and the “Great Before.” Since most religious texts deal with the afterlife rather than the ‘before-life,’ Pixar had a great deal of creative freedom in developing that environment.
The look of the “Jerrys” and Terry were influenced by modern Nordic and wire sculptures, as well as Picasso paintings. One of the story artists even created wire sculptures of some of the characters. The team was intrigued by the brain tease of filming something that we know is 3-D but also appears as two-dimensional on camera. I suspect the simple outline of wire was also symbolic of the simplicity of the world before life on earth. The souls were designed to be cloud-like, almost non-physical, fuzzy blobs that conveyed the look of someone without distinguishable features. The “Great Beyond” was inspired by the phrase, “going towards the light.” The “Hall of Everything” was inspired by carnivals, as a place of awe and discovery. I especially loved the concept of the “lost souls,” which is where one ends up when either consumed by their passion or full of anxiety and lacking direction. It was very much in line with the idea of being a committed musician or artist. I also loved that Pixar chose the number 22 for Tina Fey’s irreverent character. I could get lost in considering all of the reasons why that number was settled upon. If you have as much interest in Pixar’s creative process as I do, I would suggest watching the extras.
“Soul” features Pixar’s first African-American lead, and though the race of the lead character isn’t of central importance to the story, it creates a unique prism that lends itself to the theme and environment of the film. Jazz is a huge part of African-American history, and it’s fabulous that Pixar has devoted itself to telling more diverse stories and exploring various cultures. Jamie Foxx gives one of his best performances here, which seems odd to say given that this is a voice performance. He completely loses himself in the character of Joe. The music performances were performed and recorded by Jon Batiste. Thanks to MIDI data, the animators were able to retrace the exact placement of Batiste’s fingers on the keyboard, in order to authentically replicate the performances. The level of technological innovation in “Soul” is remarkable.
The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is also phenomenal. Their scores in the past have gnawed at my eardrums, though I will admit that they do create atmosphere better than almost anyone else. For a Fincher film, their edgy synthesized sounds work perfectly, but I admit, I was a bit skeptical as to how their talents would translate to a Pixar film. Could the guy who wrote “Starfuckers, Inc.” write music for a kid’s film? Fortunately, the duo has created their best work yet. The score beautifully compliments the visuals and the emotional beats of the story.
Once again, Pixar has delivered a timeless classic that the whole family will love. The message of appreciating the gift of life will speak to parents and young-adults more than it likely will to children, but it will no doubt have a special meaning given the times we are in. The implementation of jazz perfectly pairs with the message of the film, as jazz is an artform that relies on improvisation and a general lack of structure. It’s about taking something that could be viewed as a mistake and turning it into something new and valuable. It’s the perfect metaphor for a near-perfect film. My only criticism of “Soul” lies in its second act, which features a twist that is jarring and a bit cliché, but ultimately earns its thematic value in the story. Be prepared to laugh, cry, and examine your own decisions in life. This is the best film of 2020.