It’s not every day that you come across a film that instantly finds a special place in your heart after the first 40 minutes alone. Soul, Pixar’s latest, is one of those. It reminds us yet again why this is one of the best animation studios in the world. Soul is another Pixar film with a lot of heart and... soul. The film’s trailers had me believing the title is an allusion to the musical genre of the same name.
The protagonist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), is a jazz pianist. But music is just a backdrop here. Soul goes way beyond that — and I mean that literally. A middle school music teacher with lofty aspirations, Joe finally thinks he has made it when jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) allows him to be a pianist in her band. Unfortunately, fate has other plans.
An incident lands him in a place that is sort of a bridge to the Great Beyond — what we usually call the ‘afterlife’. But don’t let those terms worry you — this is not a ‘dark’ film. Joe gets caught in a situation similar to Albert Brooks in the live-action comedy classic, Defending Your Life. Joe gets stuck in a place best described as the Pixar version of the ‘Limbo’ in Inception.
Speaking of which, Soul has as many layers as the Nolan film. Remember that line of Leonardo DiCaprio where he talks about creating a dream with its own rules? Well, Soul has some stunningly rendered dreamlike zones with their own rules and logic. They got me wondering whether these Pixar guys are privy to some life secrets we don’t know. Take a zone called Great Before, where unborn souls — all adorable looking — have people who have already passed on as mentors.
At one point, we get a funny montage featuring Mother Teresa, Muhammed Ali and other famous personalities. Joe wants to get out of there, and his ticket is a stubborn unborn soul called 22 (Tina Fey), with whom he establishes a powerful bond. 22 has a problem. She doesn’t think too highly of life even though she hasn’t been born yet.
Beneath its dazzling colours and lighting, there’s a world brimming with fantastic ideas and thought-provoking questions: Are we born with certain personality traits or are they shaped by our circumstances? Or did our souls undergo a ‘personality-forming’ process before we were born? And what would happen if the souls of two individuals get switched? In what I’d call the film’s standout moment, we see Joe ending up in a cat’s body and 22 ending up in Joe’s. It’s the stretch where we get the maximum laughs.
The beauty of Pixar films is how we sometimes find beauty and joy in the smallest of details. Soul is a perfect playground for director Pete Docter who explored the nature of emotions in his last film, Inside Out. We see how souls influence body language; how the characters sound amongst themselves, but different amongst others. I also enjoyed that witty, kid-friendly nod to When Harry Met Sally, where one character “wants to have” what the other is having.
Interestingly, Pixar had used a similar moment in Ratatouille too — when the antagonist gets into a restaurant and orders the same dish the protagonist just had. Soul also asks some meaningful questions — about the nature of passion, purpose, finding one’s spark, and the difference between the last two. It also talks about finding joy in doing what you love, even if it doesn’t bring significant monetary gains. Soul uses the conflict between Joe and his disappointed mother to mine these discussions.
As seen in some earlier Pixar films, there is an organic balance between spectacle and ideas here. The storytelling is so strong that the settings never become a distraction. Talk about perfect synchronicity.
Once again, I’m amazed by Pixar’s ability to pick the right actors to voice their films. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are inspired casting choices.
Their voices have that comforting, sitcom-friendly quality that works with both kids and grownups alike. Remember how Samuel Jackson sounded as Frozone in The Incredibles films? We get that with Foxx too. I loved Soul for the same reasons I found other Pixar films such as Ratatouille and Up endearing.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad
Director: Pete Docter
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar