Disney Pixar has done it again with “Soul” thanks to the inspirational co-writing and co-directing of the renowned artist Pete Docter who gave us “Up,” “Inside Out,” and “Toy Story.” With animation that makes you forget it’s animated, Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett and an array of other well-known and talented actors use their voice to bring these characters to life. It’s a remarkable story, perhaps geared more toward adults than children, that sends a perfect message of living our best lives each and every day.
The opening scene introduces us to Joe Gardner (Foxx) who finds himself in a rut as a middle school music teacher. Never having attained his goal of becoming a standout jazz pianist, Joe trudges through his days. But then that day of opportunity comes and he’s ready. Auditioning for the great Dorothea Williams (Bassett), he gets his lucky break and the world is a shiny new place for Joe. Moments later, along a zippy stroll back home, he takes a wrong step and lands in a weigh station between life and death. Just when things were looking up for Joe, it looks like he’s never going to make his earthly dreams come true.
The animation changes in this new place as we only see Joe’s soul and all those who are ascending to the next phase. But Joe, unwilling to leave his life behind, runs, finding himself in The Great Before, the place where personalities and quirks are developed for each and every soul. It is here that he meets the feisty 22 (Fey) who has absolutely no want to become human but together, inadvertently, they discover the true meaning of life.
“Soul” is an existential story delving into what it means to be human and the gifts we are given and how they are attained. While this may sound like a conceptually complicated idea to convey, Docter and co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers find a concrete way to demonstrate it. And in true Pixar style, the emotional element rings loudly, bringing us into the story as we forget that we are watching an animated film, connecting us with Joe and his urgency to not give up on his life. Countering Joe’s dramatic flare, 22 adds the snarky comedy that makes us laugh aloud—it’s a perfect balance. But there’s also a dark side of the film, a land of lost souls which counterbalances and adds an element of fear to Joe’s quest to live. While the darkness may seem disturbing, like in life, we cannot appreciate the light without the dark.
The imaginative elements seems boundless in “Soul” as it captivates you and pushes your cognitive boundaries. With this creativity, as would be expected with any Pixar film, the animation is stellar. Playing the piano, Joe’s fingers hit every key needed to produce the harmonic tones. A simple rise of an eyebrow or the slow turn of a head, gives Dorothea the hesitant and exasperated emotion necessary for a scene. The attention to detail is incredible as the animators find seemingly imperceptible ways to animate these characters and bring them to life. Of course, the voices are the final touch and each character is cast perfectly. Foxx finds the dramatic notes while Fey’s razor sharp wit punches each scene in staccato style. Graham Norton’s droll humor seeps into the bean counter “Moonwind” as we chuckle at his focus on precision. It’s a magical amalgam of writing, directing, acting and animation that equals the passionately evocative story telling of “Coco,” “Toy Story,” and “Inside Out.”
“Soul” is the perfect escape to find yourself and while it may appeal more to adults than children, the animation will certainly capture the heart and soul, pun intended, of everyone who watches it. Be cautioned, parents, as this is going to spur a few questions about life, death, and every existential question you could imagine from your kids…and maybe even from you!
You can stream “Soul” on Disney+ beginning Dec. 25, 2020.