Credit: Disney Plus/Pixar
Blockbuster Beat by Selina Lee Featured Film

Soul | Pete Docter & Kemp Powers

December 26, 2020

Soul is another complex, cosmic effort from Pixar, and a quietly joyous send-off to a relentlessly bleak year.

It makes a certain sense to end 2020, a year of profound uncertainty, by asking ourselves what it all means. Why are we here and does any of this actually matter? Luckily, there’s no movie studio better suited to tackling such existential questions than Pixar, which has perfected the art of packaging simple-but-deep thought experiments within a cuddly, kid-friendly sheen of technical wizardry. The studio’s latest places viewers in particularly good hands with Oscar-winning co-director Pete Docter, who has previously helmed the Pixar standouts Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out. The latter film is, arguably, the apotheosis of the studio’s particular brand of visually appealing introspection. In Soul, Docter is even more ambitious, going simultaneously deeper and broader to guide viewers through a distinctly non-Judeo-Christian interpretation of life, death, and what comes after (but mostly before.) Our proxies are Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a washed-up middle school band teacher with dreams of jazz glory, and 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has yet to begin life on earth and isn’t terribly excited about the prospect. 

It’s worth noting that this is Pixar’s first film with a Black lead, and Docter is joined by Kemp Powers, the studio’s first Black co-director (also the author of One Night in Miami…). Much of the film’s New York City setting takes place in and around where Gardner lives, which isn’t gentrified Williamsburg or ritzy SoHo but Queens, the most diverse county in the continental U.S. It’s all too easy for an animated movie featuring mostly Black characters to rely on caricatures or stereotypes, however unintentionally, but Powers and Docter have here worked hard to avoid such pitfalls. An exquisite attention to detail is paid toward the interplay of light, shadow, and texture against various shades of Black skin, something critics have similarly noted with the cinematography of HBO’s hit show Insecure. And, importantly, Gardner is his own person with his own struggles, only some of which are universal. As Powers has noted, “Treating the Black experience as a monolith makes things a lot easier: You can have one Black person rubber-stamp something and use that as your excuse for not having tried harder to get it right.”

Like many great works of art, Soul ponders the big questions by dwelling on the details, and a recurring motif is the simple pleasure of indulging our five senses. The film’s animation team perfectly captures the mouth-watering aroma of fresh pizza, the unexpected gusts of sticky air through a subway grate, and the gentle ripple of fingertips tapping against a gate — exactly the sort of quotidian sensations you’d only notice if you were either desperately clinging to life or entirely new to such experiences. But underneath these reliably great visuals is a sincere, almost melancholy thread of longing and nagging disappointment. Once Gardner gets his big break playing with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, at her most regal), he must ask himself why, after finally getting the thing he’s always wanted, his life still feels the same. Meanwhile, 22 struggles to find the “spark” that she thinks makes life worth living, and in the process almost succumbs to dejection and insecurity. Both characters hold themselves back from leading a fulfilling life for different reasons; death is only the tip of the iceberg. Fear, shame, and self-doubt lurk just below the surface, though they’re explored and depicted with Pixar’s trademark blend of humor and compassion. 

As with all Pixar movies, adult themes and kid-friendly antics regularly bump up against each other. A plotline involving a hospital therapy cat seems designed to reignite the interest of younger viewers who may have drifted off during the film’s headier moments, but then it’s hard to imagine an adult audience that won’t appreciate Soul’s background gags and throwaway jokes, including a jab at perennial punching bags the New York Knicks. And who among us hasn’t written off a slack-jawed hedge fund bro as a lost soul?  Similarly shifting is Soul‘s exploration of its particular version of the afterlife, and delving into it can feel a bit like being strapped to a conveyor belt: as soon as we get our bearings in one plane, we’re led to a new dimension with an entirely different set of colors and creatures. These tonal shifts can be jarring, such as when we’re thrown from the Great Before’s ethereal, pastel-colored candy land to the inside of a screeching, grimy subway car. Each new world also comes with its own mood and music, so Soul often feels like several movies wrapped into one: it opens as a metaphysical theme park and morphs into a slapstick body-swap comedy before wrapping on a note of cosmic affirmation. It’s a quietly joyous send-off to a relentlessly bleak year, and something only Pixar could have delivered. 

You can currently stream Pete Docter’s Soul on Disney+.