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Soul

Peter W Sheehan  |  30 December 2020

SOUL. Voiced by Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, and Angela Bassett. Also, Phylicia Rashad and Daveed Diggs. Directed by Pete Docter. Rated PG (Thematic elements and some language). 100 min.

This American, computer-animated film tells the story of a musician who has a passion for music and, following an accident, is transported out of his body and looks to find his way back to where he came from. The film is directed by Pete Docter, the chief creative officer at Pixar Animation Studios, and is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American actor.

Pixar has a list of extraordinary achievements behind it. The company was responsible for such creative films as Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), Up (2009), and Inside Out (2015). In this film, Joe Gardner (voiced by Foxx) is a passionate African-American jazz pianist, who teaches band-music, and has long dreamed of performing jazz-music live on stage to an audience. He impresses other musicians with his skill, and is unexpectedly given the opportunity to perform live during the opening act at the ‘Half Note Club’ in New York City. He is given the chance to accompany legendary musician-saxophonist, Dorothea Williams (Bassett).

Before he can perform on stage, he meets with an accident in which his soul is separated from his body. Joe steps into the street, and falls through a manhole, and ends up in hospital, comatose, awaiting death. The depiction of his death is meant to prepare viewers to contemplate what takes place before and after ‘life’.

After his accident, Joe finds that he is on his way to the ‘Great Beyond’, which is a world where deceased souls keep their personalities when leaving earth. Joe, however, is not willing to die. While on the travelator that takes him to the ‘Great Beyond’, he leaps off it, and finds himself in the world of the ‘Great Before’ – a world in which unborn souls are assigned personality traits after being trained by counsellors to develop an identity that allows them to be born in human form. Joe is mistakenly appointed as a mentor, and is given the task of training 22 (Fey), a soul, that feels trapped in the ‘Great Before’, and who has a very dim view of the concept of life.

22 doesn’t want to be a human, but nevertheless joins Joe on a journey that helps her find her ‘soul’, which is to return to Earth with a purpose in life. The worlds of the ‘Great Beyond’, and the ‘Great Before’ are heavily stylised in their imagery, but the film’s middle section is presented in realistic-looking, fantasy format.

This is Pixar’s most ambitious film to date, and is a joyful, conceptually weighty film, that provides a captivating journey into the realms of imagination that tenderly touches real life, and expresses the energising force of humanity.

It is witty, full of colour and floating visual forms, projects a distinctive philosophy of life, and has an excellent jazz sound track that fits its imagery. Joe is passionate about music, but 22 is not so inclined; however, Joe manages to train 22 to discover what it means to have ‘soul’.

Through technological wizardry and stunning imagery, the film uses animated depictions about the meaning of life in a thoughtful way. The middle section on New York City – where 22 and Joe find themselves with the other’s identity, and roam through NYC to try and get their original identities back, is full of warmth and rich in detail.

This is the most existential and ambitious film that Pixar has yet produced. The movie is an inventive, metaphysical depiction of characters that don’t have bodies at all. We see amorphous, luminous blobs, ruminating about what life means, and Joe is randomly assigned to a ‘soul-mate’, 22, who seems content never to get a ‘life’.

Fey gives the role of 22 all she has, and pulls the stops out in voice-bravura style. Joe helps her find her passion, and her reason for living, and in so doing he gives purposeful meaning in life to both himself and her.

In past films, Pixar has creatively examined complex, demanding concepts such as play (Toy Story), and emotion (Inside Out). This movie attempts to examine what it means to be human and have a soul, and explores no less than the meaning and purpose of life. The movie makes no attempt to answer all of the issues it raises, and sensibly pulls away from projecting any universal notion of the purpose of human existence. Rather, it creatively and inventively offers superb computer-animation about life, and densely packs itself with thought-provoking and stimulating ideas.

Peter W Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Streaming on Disney from 25 December 2020

 

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