Review: Soul

Pete Docter is a figure who’s now almost as synonymous with animation as he is with Pixar Animation Studios. Having directed some of its finest movies, the industry veteran is now chief creative officer of the company, overseeing Pixar’s entire output. And even with such a busy schedule, Docter still has time to craft his own work of the highest form.

It has been a lifelong dream of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) to play piano at a jazz club – and now he’s one step closer to achieving it, having just been invited to join the band of fabled jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). The mere opportunity of performing proves too exciting for Joe since, in his haste to tell others the news, he forgets to mind his surroundings and falls down one of New York City’s many manholes.

This act of carelessness sees Joe’s spirit transcend his physical form and, after narrowly avoiding a trip to the afterlife, land in a place known as the “You Seminar”. It is in this ethereal realm that souls are assigned personalities and gifts, before being placed in the bodies of humans. Joe learns that here, his task is to mentor a troublesome soul known as Twenty-Two (Tina Fey) and, if successful, could earn the chance of returning to Earth.

One of the many, many downsides of the ongoing pandemic is the scrapping of theatrical releases, of which this picture is just one of numerous victims. Soul is one of the more fortunate casualties in this regard though, with its cinematic distribution eschewed in favour of appearing on Disney+, the Mouse House’s international streaming service. And if one can afford the subscription fees, it’s definitely worth the expense.

Those concerned about Soul being a streaming-only proposition need not worry, as it does not detract from the viewing experience. There isn’t the meticulous sound editing of Cars, nor the mighty orchestral score of The Incredibles, nor even the sprawling, detailed environments of Coco or Onward – in other words, unlike most Pixar releases, this is not a film that begs to be experienced in a cinema. Indeed, Soul can be just as much appreciated from the comfort of home, if not more so.

Another factor that sets Soul apart from its Pixar brethren is the soundtrack of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are collaborating with the studio for the first time. With the film taking place in two different worlds, the composing duo has fittingly crafted a score of two distinct moods, with jazz-oriented compositions (courtesy of Jon Batiste) for scenes taking place in Manhattan, and softer, soothing electronic music for the You Seminar. Whatever the moment, Reznor and Ross’ unique, virtuosic compositions match perfectly.

Twenty-Two (left) alongside Joe’s spirit in Soul

More remarkable still is the screenplay, being the most mature, profound and inspired work Docter has delivered to date. Co-written with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, Docter’s story is a more meditative and philosophical affair than all other Pixar films, one that encourages adults to rethink their perception of life. Additionally, the script is blessed with some rather surprising turns, of the kind that leaves viewers second-guessing as to how the conflict is resolved, or even whether that’s possible.

There is an area where Soul falls behind its stablemates, and that’s in the animation department. While the rendering and character movements are flawless as always – look no further than the jazz sequences for evidence of that – there isn’t the level of optic creativity that one would expect from Pixar, with the Manhattan scenery looking particularly bland. There are instances of creative visuals, sure, but these should be seen throughout the film, not just occasionally.

Thankfully, this grievance (and it is only a minor one) does not detract from overall experience, for Soul ranks as one the finest pictures ever produced by Pixar, a fact which speaks volumes of its director – very few people can boast having a filmography of Pete Docter’s calibre, and fewer still have crafted one whilst leading an entire studio renowned for its near-flawless output. For these reasons, Soul ought to cement Docter as one of the industry’s giants, on par with the likes of Nick Park, Don Bluth, Hayao Miyazaki and even the legend himself, Walt Disney.

In what may well be his crowning achievement, Peter Docter has delivered a contemplative, engrossing film that belies its childlike aesthetics. Soul is yet another classic from the Pixar stalwart, possessing a magnificent soundtrack, clever story and typically impressive animation.

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