SOUL: a moving, colourful affirmation of the self

A. J. Black reviews the latest Pixar animated epic…

Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.

They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.

By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.

Soul is nominally set in the modern day but from the Saul Bass-inspired title logo, through to the presentation of our main character Joe Gardner, we could be in a quasi-1950s or 1960s New York City.

There is something deliberately retro in the world Docter & Powers fashion around Joe (played with delightful brio by Jamie Foxx), a music teacher with a genius talent on the piano. We could be in the age of Harlem jazz clubs at the turn of counter culture as Joe gets the chance of appearing in the band of successful singer Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), only to fall down an open manhole on the way home and find himself on the verge of death, accidentally ushered into the role of a ‘mentor’ to budding souls ready to take on bodies on Earth in order to avoid the Great Beyond, a gaping conveyer belt leading to the Christian white light, the maw of the afterlife. It’s here he is entrusted the unruly soul 22 (a cheeky Tina Fey) to coach into embracing her role as a soul.

On a technical basis, the first act introduces the Great Before as a world filled with innovation and rules. Mentors to souls are attempting to help them find their ‘spark’, that unique denominator that makes whoever they host, ostensibly, special. This can be done through exploring the mentor’s own life or a storehouse of possible ideas from hobbies to careers. Soul has fun mining these arresting visuals and clever concepts while using the rules of this world as a framework to explore Joe & 22’s dynamic, before snapping them back into the real world via a deliberately comical mechanism. It forces them onto an overtly farcical path.

The beauty of Soul is that it never entirely gives way to pure comedy or complete fantasy. It grounds everything in a stylistic sense of time and place while following two very clear character threads – Joe’s realisation that determinism is holding him back, that purpose does not denote self, and 22’s awakening as to what life means and the joy of experiencing it. These are realisations and revelations that intertwine these characters together and underscore the lyrical flow of the picture. Joe believes music is what defines him. “Music is all I think about. From the moment I wake up in the morning… to the moment I fall asleep at night. I was born to play. It’s my reason for living.” He declares while 22, stuck in the mode of a surly teenager, is too fearful of life to even try it.

Docter and Powers work to use music as the catalyst, through Joe’s experience, to explore the meaning of purpose and meaning.

Joe’s experience as an African-American man (the first in Pixar’s history, with Powers their first behind the scenes director as such too), embroiled in the world of jazz and performance, leads him to believe music is his one and only path. His worth lies in what he can do, his talent, and Soul is about disabusing these notions. 22’s fear stems in part from her anxiety about having no ‘spark’, of not standing out in life, and this is a very 21st century existential fear. How often do we judge people based on what they do? How often does a value judgement apply on who they are? And how often do we escalate people with talent as ‘special’, unique and different, many identified by that gift? Soul wants us to realise that purpose is less important than life, than living, than experiencing.

This feels more crucial a message than ever as we leave 2020, a year which has led us to question ever more our place and value in a rapidly changing world. Soul feels timeless in the way most Pixar films do, rooted in a stylistic place but boasting themes and ideas, and magical worlds, that stretch beyond the now. The Great Before lacks the visual spectacle of Coco, or the playfulness of Toy Story, and Soul never quite reaches the emotional heights of Inside Out or Up, but it trades pathos for hope. It exchanges loss for discovery. It has the power to remind us that we all, as individuals, have our own sense of value, and it does so in the purest, clearest and most entertaining way.

Pixar have made films that can make you cry easier than Soul, but few are as philosophically profound and personal.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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