“Soul”, the latest work from Pixar Animation Studios, is funny and sublime in its seemingly simple tale of life and music. Although it does not reach to the level of those great Pixar animation films such as “Up” (2009), “Inside Out” (2015), and “Coco” (2017), it shows us that the people of Pixar Animation Studios still have their own magic touches despite several recent subpar films such as “The Good Dinosaur” (2015) and “Onward” (2020), and I am already willing to appreciate more of its rich humor and details coupled with a number of inspired moments you have to watch for yourself.
At the beginning, we meet Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist who has worked for years as a part-time music teacher in some local school located in New York City. Since he got interested in jazz thanks to his diseased father, Joe has aspired to have a career breakthrough someday, but he still has not got any opportunity for that, and he is not that happy even when he is informed that he is now promoted to a full-time position. As a matter of fact, he simply took the job just for supporting himself without his mother’s help, and he has not been that enthusiastic about teaching his students these days, though he clearly discerns that one of his current students deserves some more attention and encouragement from him.
And then, what do you know, there comes a golden opportunity for him. One of Joe’s former students, who is now a professional jazz musician working under a famous jazz saxophone player named Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett), suggests that he should try on the audition for Williams’ new pianist, and Joe does his best in front of Williams, who, quite impressed by Joe’s performance, decides to hire him for her upcoming concert at a jazz club.
However, this sudden change of luck for him is followed by an unfortunate incident of bad luck. Quite elated by the possibility of a breakthrough he has always wanted, Joe lets himself mired in euphoria for a while as mindlessly walking along a street, and then he happens to be fallen into an open manhole he fails to notice in advance. After the following blackout, he finds himself on the stairway to the “Great Beyond” along with many other souls, and then he is tumbled into the area of the “Great Before” after trying to escape from the stairway.
In contrast to the “Great Beyond”, which the final destination of all souls leaving life, the “Grant Before” is the starting point for new souls about to start their life, and we get to know the rules of this area through several guides who look like coming right out of Pablo Picasso’s caricature drawings. Each new soul will acquire several necessary personality traits before starting life on the Earth, but they all need something called ‘spark’ above all, and each of them will be advised and helped by ‘experienced’ souls for that.
Under the disguise of some ‘experienced’ soul, Joe happens to be tasked with a soul numbered 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who has been notorious for being not so interested in living a life for many millenniums. Although they do not get along that well with each other just like many of famous duos in Pixar animation films such as Mr. Fredricksen and Russell in “Up”, Joe comes to make a deal with 22, and that is the start of their bumpy journey among several different zones.
Now I should be a little more careful about describing the movie for not spoiling your entertainment, but I can tell you at least that the screenplay by director Pete Doctor and his co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers keeps throwing and then developing one story idea after another during the middle act. While it generates some tension on Joe’s journey with 22 via the following pursuit of a certain supporting character from the Great Beyond, the movie leisurely bounces from one inspired moment to another, and I particularly enjoyed a part involved with a spiritual sign twirler named Moonhead (voiced by Graham Norton).
Because a considerable part of the story is unfolded on the streets and alleys of New York City, Doctor and his animators pay lots of attention to how to present them realistically via digital animation, and the overall result is quite commendable to say the least. While most of human figures shown during this part are still basically broad caricatures, their many different appearances will remind you again of how diverse the city is in terms of race and culture, and I certainly appreciate a small Korean signboard briefly shown in the background during Joe’s certain embarrassing moment.
Above all, the film tries to bring lots of authenticity to Joe’s cultural background as much as it can, and the efforts are clearly shown from several key scenes including the one unfolded in a local African American barbershop where Joe is one of its frequent customers. In case of the music in the film, the terrific jazz music provided by Jon Batiste is complemented well by the gentle electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and Reznor and Ross deserve to be praised along with Batiste for showing another side of their talent as they previously did in David Fincher’s recent Netflix film “Mank” (2020).
Although Joe and 22 are quite minimalistic in their appearance as two mismatched souls, Doctor and his Pixar animators successfully convey to us these two characters’ dynamic relationship development, and Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey ably imbue a considerable amount of life and personality to their respective characters, In case of the other voice cast members in the film, several notable performers including Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Daveed Diggs, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, and June Squibb are solid on the whole, and Norton is especially funny in his crucial supporting role.
In conclusion, “Soul”, which was released on Disney+ a few days ago in US (It will probably be released in theaters around next January in case of South Korea, by the way), is another superb achievement from Pixar, and I am still amazed by how effortlessly it delivers rather familiar messages on life with lots of humor and poignancy. Although it did not elevate me like “Up” or “Inside Out” did, it is still superlative nonetheless, and you definitely should not miss it.