At least with Pixar’s latest movie going straight to streaming, no one can see you weeping in the privacy of your lounge room.
If there’s one advantage to Pixar film Soul being diverted from a cinema release to streaming is that in the privacy of your own home, no one can see you ugly cry.
That means you can really ride the emotional waves, let it wash over you and give into full force weeping. There’s no need for the quietly dignified tears you quickly wipe away in a theatre, hoping the strangers around you don’t notice how hard you’re trying to hold in your heaves.
Like with almost every Pixar movie that goes before it, Soul taps into something about the human condition that so-called “grown up” films rarely do. There are sorcerers in that Pixar building who must love toying with our emotions.
With the voice talents of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga and Rachel House, it’s another masterful work from a creative team that has already set the bar so high with Toy Story, Inside Out, Up and Coco.
Even with those near-impossible expectations, Soul manages to be one of the best films of the year – and not just in a pandemic year with a depleted release calendar, this is a movie that would’ve earnt its spot in a normal year.
Joe Gardner (Foxx) is a school music teacher who carries the dream of performing onstage as a jazz musician. When he’s on the verge of his big break – an opportunity to play with the famed Dorothea Williams (Bassett) – Joe falls into a manhole in his excitement.
Joe’s soul leaves his body and is on his way to the “Great Beyond” when he somehow scrambles into the “Great Before”. The “Great Before” is a hypothetical space where new souls gain their personalities – excitability, megalomania, self-absorption, etc – and where they’re matched with mentors to help them find their “spark”.
Joe is mistaken for a mentor and is assigned to 22 (Fey), an existentialist soul who has resisted all attempts to get her to Earth, convinced that life was worth skipping – the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Carl Jung had no shot at breaking through her snarkiness.
The pairing of a man who wasn’t done with living with a character with no desire to live is rich territory to explore nothing less than the meaning of life. So, you may finally get the answer Monty Python withheld.
As you would expect with a powerhouse such as Pixar, the animation here is superb, especially its visual conception of the Great Beyond.
There’s a wispy, Casper-like quality to Joe’s soul that is both universal and specific to him, while the almost cubist flavour to the how the Great Before counsellors are rendered hits the right balance of incorporeality and gravity.
Those scenes are more boundary pushing in terms of technique, but the warmth comes from the New York-set Earth scenes in which neighbourhoods are vividly re-created, lending the story a physical connection to the real world that doesn’t usually exist in Pixar movies with their make-believe worlds.
Soul is Pixar’s first feature that centres on a black lead character and it had to ground that in the authenticity of those communities – a scene set in a barber shop captures the vivacity of that space.
The screenplay was co-written by Pixar head Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers. The latter is a black journalist-turned-filmmaker who brings his lived experiences to a story that will be even more significant for some audience members who have longed to see themselves represented onscreen.
Kemp co-directed Soul with Docter, but he’s also getting Oscar buzz for upcoming film One Night in Miami, which he adapted from his stage play. That drama, which marks Regina King’s directorial debut, the story of a fictionalised meeting between Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali will be released on Amazon Prime in January.
The voice performances from Foxx and Fey are heartfelt and effective while the likes of Rashad, Bassett and Questlove brings depth to the world created in Soul.
There’s a lot of poignancy to Soul without being bogged down in sentimentality. It’s a cure for any existential malaise 2020 may have burdened on us, a celebration of the mundane and the grand, all-consuming passions.
Despite its high-concept storytelling adventures, there’s a simple parable that underpins the story – a message that resonates even louder in this dramatic and yet banal year.
To say more would be to spoil it, because it really does sneak up on you. Let it.
Soul is available to stream on Disney+ on December 25
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