Soul director Pete Docter knows his storytelling in the world of Pixar, he helped create the original stories for Toy Story 1 and 2, Monsters Inc., WALL-E, Inside Out and Up, so clearly has one hell of a talent for delving inside the human condition, which is present here once again. This time around, the Pixar Animation Studios’ feature focuses in on the life of Joe Gardner (voiced wonderfully by Jamie Foxx), an American middle-school music teacher who has never quite taken those opportunities in his life, when he could have.
One of Joe’s passions is Jazz, he’s a talented pianist, and while he’s dreamed of playing Jazz full-time for many years, he’s never quite been brave enough to take a plunge, despite being a good teacher and musician at heart. But after an old student recommends him to a famous act that’s in town, he auditions and shines on the piano, full embracing the moment and he’s offered the job in the band. But, of course, as this happens incredibly early in the film, you feel something else is coming and it’s not long before a tragic fall, literally threw the streets of New York, send Joe to an unfortunate demise.
From that moment, Soul takes us into another plane of reality, moving out of the ‘real’ world and into The Great Beyond, an ethereal existence where new souls, shown in the form of small pearl-like creatures, discover all those individual personality quirks, interests, and idiosyncrasies before heading off to Earth fuse with their human entity, whoever that may be. But here’s the thing, Joe shouldn’t really be there. When Joe ‘died’, he was supposed to head up the stairway to the light, but he breaks free and falls into this other realm and while initially the beings who run the domain try to send him back to where he should be, he instead puts himself forward to try and help a precocious, let’s say ‘lost soul’ called 22 (voiced by the excellent Tina Fey), find its way to humanity.
22 doesn’t understand the point of the human experience and constantly does everything she can to not jump to Earth, whereas Joe (of course) only wants to return and take that chance that was given for the first time in his life. Soul is a story of missed opportunities, mistaken self-guidance, and finding self-worth by taking a plunge into what makes them individually important in whatever way they find. Whilst we know this is classic in the world of animation, there’s something unique about Joe’s story, something unique and as always Pixar take us on a journey beyond the standard setup, and that every-man effect is why you’re with him throughout.
Pete Docter co-directs and writes Soul with Kemp Powers, who also wrote the screenplay for One Night in Miami. Powers impact is important as he brings to life, and to the mainstream, a leading black character with a distinctive story, which adds to the impressively shifting cultures within Pixar’s work. He was also brought into the creative team because of similar traits he shares with Joe, from being the same age, being from New York and also loving Jazz. Joe Gardner isn’t just a throwaway lead for the hell of it, he’s a living, breathing animated human being with dreams, defeats and hopes that beautifully amalgamate.
While there are hefty universal themes of life and death, and literally everything above, beyond, and in between, Soul focuses on the centre of everything. Joe’s journey is that of realising that while human life can be lonely, it’s also a joyous place to exist when you embrace your passions and take a chance on the world around you, especially if you’re as super talented as he is.
Soul is also a testament to how far the animation studios have come since Toy Story. The world they’ve built is tremendously vibrant (through life and death) with outstanding animation that tests all the boundaries, from a now-classic Pixar-style, through photorealism and then an impressive expressionist take on the ‘beings’ who run the world behind the world. I adored the shifting 2D-like creatures that effortlessly interact with 3D/CG characters and bring a ghostly reality that makes them purposefully stand-out, it’s refreshing, energising animation work that I can’t wait to re-watch.
As with Pixar’s other best work, they create a story that’s suitable for all ages, I feel like it would be a visual treat for younger audiences with relatable characters and it’s an absolute gift of reflective storytelling for adults. Soul also contains many laugh-out-moments, including a middle ‘return to Earth’ section that I’d recommend not spoiling for yourself by watching any trailers, and it’s frankly blinking lovely filmmaking with a full-blooded-beating heart running right through it.
This is the film 2020 needs, and you deserve, and come Christmas Day you’ll be travelling through all the emotions and feeling Soul deep in your very existence.