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Film Review: ‘Soul’ Once Again Gets to the Heart of the Matter for Pixar

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is playing jazz, and his dedication to his dream is steadfast—he lives alone in his Queens apartment, immersing himself in his music, and when he does venture out, he spends most of his time talking about jazz. But when he finds himself in another realm helping someone else find their passion, he discovers what it truly means to have “Soul.” Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

With every Pixar release, the animation giant contends with whether or not they’ve made another classic. On the one hand, that’s pretty unfair, considering the heights achieved over the years. On the other hand, however, it’s an amazing feather in their cap, to have expectations on that level. Tomorrow, Pixar puts out Soul, one of their most ambitious offerings to date. Whether it reaches those iconic levels will vary from person to person, but the ambition, creativity, and maturity on display is a hallmark of some of the best of what they have to offer. Pixar always has heady ideas at play, but arguably never quite as adult orientated as this time around.

Soul is about the things that make life worth living. Involving things like the afterlife, death, and what gives you that spark in the world, these are elements that clearly target adults over kids. At the same time, it’s a fun romp, with some incredible music.

Comparisons to something like Inside Out are unavoidable here, but they’re decidedly different animals. Both get at the core of what it means to be alive, but stylistically they’re very different. At the same time, if you liked Inside Out, it’s a fairly strong bet that you’re going to like Soul.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is playing jazz, and his dedication to his dream is steadfast—he lives alone in his Queens apartment, immersing himself in his music, and when he does venture out, he spends most of his time talking about jazz. But when he finds himself in another realm helping someone else find their passion, he discovers what it truly means to have “Soul.” Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) has a passion for jazz music. His dream is to make a living in a band, sharing his gift with the world. For the moment, he’s a band teacher in middle school, paying the bills. His mother Libba (voice of Phylicia Rashad) wants him to accept that position full-time, but Joe isn’t ready to give up his dream. After scoring a once in a lifetime audition, he’s walking on air, until an accident separates him from his body. Unwilling to accept this fate, he refuses to go towards the light, tumbling down into a “before” world, where souls are assigned.

Needing to get back to his body, Joe winds up paired with a wayward soul in 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who has spent centuries not being able to figure out what their spark in life would be. Thus begins an adventure that sees Joe eventually back on Earth, but stuck in the body of a cat. Hijinks ensue, but so does a contemplation of life, a rumination on the spirit, and a host of jazz music.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is playing jazz, and his dedication to his dream is steadfast—he lives alone in his Queens apartment, immersing himself in his music, and when he does venture out, he spends most of his time talking about jazz. But when he finds himself in another realm helping someone else find their passion, he discovers what it truly means to have “Soul.” Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

First and foremost, this is an absolutely stunning film. New York City looks photorealistic, to the point where it’s literally breathtaking. The other realm is bright and unique, so there’s do very distinct vibes, visually. Then, there’s the sound, featuring a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard from them. Reznor and Ross already showcased an ability to take a brilliant right turn with Mank this year, so it’s further evidence that they’re at the pinnacle of cinematic scores.

Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey do solid voice work, though nothing here shoots off the screen. Fey and Foxx are quite enjoyable, but it’s not above and beyond. The same goes for supporting voices like Questlove, Richard Ayoade, Daveed Diggs, Graham Norton, and the aforementioned Phylicia Rashad. They all do good work in Soul, but it’s in service of the story, by and large.

Filmmakers Pete Docter and Kemp Powers bring a unique feel to Soul. Docter has already established himself as one of Pixar’s best and brightest voices, while Powers is having a hell of a year, between this and One Night in Miami… (both of which release on the same day, go figure). The visuals, again, are stunning, while the screenplay they penned with Mike Jones is deep and philosophical, while never forgetting to be entertaining. Some may be thrown by the inclusion of the cat, midway through, but it works. Throw in the Reznor and Ross score, and you have an incredible success here.

Soul will entertain kids, but adults will surely get the most out of this latest Pixar endeavor. If you’re in the mood for a dense yet easy to enjoy animated movie, this is about as good as it gets. Give it a shot tomorrow on Disney+ and see what you think!

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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