Pete Docter does it again with a fascinating exploration of the meaning of life
Peter Docter has brought us some of the most original and creative stories in film in the last two decades. Working at Pixar he helped write the screenplay for Toy Story () and broke out as a director with the likes of Monster’s Inc. (), Up (2009), and Inside Out (2015). His films have progressively become bolder in using the animation medium to explore the more abstract aspects of the human psyche. With his latest, he might have gone further than many storytellers do in exploring humanity as a whole.
Soul (2020) is the latest Pixar release, forgoing a theatrical distribution in the US due to the pandemic, and dropping to Disney+ subscribers instead. The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) an aspiring jazz musician who makes his living as a middle-school music teacher in New York. One of Joe’s old students, Curley (Questlove), calls him up and asks him to fill in as a pianist for the band of the famous jazz musician Dorothea (Angela Bassett). Joe believes he is on the verge of finally breaking out into his dream job… when he accidentally falls down an open manhole and dies. Angrily, in the form of a humanoid soul, Joe tries to find a way back to his body joined by the unlikely cynical and pessimistic soul, 22 (Tina Fey).
I try not to give too much of the plot away since Soul is full of gasp-inducing twists and turns. Docter has truly been given loose rein with this film, as he seems to abandon the traditional story structures and constructs one of his own, befitting the narrative he is telling. As such, the film is never predictable, and you are kept “in the moment” throughout; trying to keep track of the visual philosophy shown on screen. Docter does retain much of the Pixar charm, however, and as such there is still the accessible laugh-out-loud humor, as well as the layered story, which appeals to both adults and kids. However, in this latter part, it seems Docter has been increasingly leaning towards addressing adults rather than kids. This shift doesn’t make Soul inappropriate for kids in any way, rather it might bore them while adults sit fascinated. This seems to continue the trend that Docter had been starting in Inside Out.
While Docter’s explorations in Inside Out were about emotions and how we perceive and suppress them in ourselves, Soul seems to build on its foundations and go a step further. The crux that Docter wants to explore in Soul is the meaning of life. The dimensions of such an enormous question force Soul to take on a rather abstract approach. The genre of animation thus becomes a crucial setting for such explorations to take place. The pursuit for the meaning of life has been done in live action movies throughout cinematic history it in It’s a Wonderful Life (), Ikiru (), and even the more commercial Meet Joe Black (). However, even all those films had to buy into an aspect of the surreal in either its style or narrative in order to deliver its message. Soul seems to have an immense advantage to pursue its subject matter, as it truly becomes untethered with the endless bounds animation can offer. Pixar has always been able to take advantage of the freedoms that animation can bring towards storytelling, but Soul seems to stand out above the rest for not doing something only creative, but rather profound for viewers as well.
In order to not lose its viewers when grappling with such deep and intimidating matters, Soul grounds its story with characters and a consistent tone. The character of Joe is incredibly well-written, crafting him to be an extremely likeable hero, yet with his own set of misconceptions and flaws that permit him to learn and have an intriguing arc. The character of 22 starts out as a slight caricature at first, but is driven to a smooth landing by littering significant moments that help craft a personality and motivations of relatable depth. The voice acting in Soul proves to be key towards inhabiting these characters, and I was especially pleased with Foxx’s performance. The American actor truly changes his intonation in order to become this character; something rather refreshing in animation for a celebrity, since many simply speak as themselves and collect their paycheck. It proved to be another demonstration of Foxx’s famed professionalism in the industry, and greatly improved the immersion and relatability of Joe’s character.
I was also pleased with how matter-of-factly Soul dealt with race. There have been comments from Docter himself, regretting how Pixar had employed black stereotypes. Instead of making some preachy or apologetic film, however, an original and creative plot inhabited by black characters is crafted instead. As a result, the film’s characters feel fully fledged instead of wearing “race” as their main character trait. In fact, many might not realize that there is only one white character in the entire film. There is a clear appreciation and nod towards the celebration of black culture throughout, not only with the use of jazz to power the soundtrack and narrative, but also in the lessons that Joe learns along the way about the small delights in the details of life, and even the use of lighting that the animation employs on black skin (something that has been poorly achieved in a lot of live-action cinema). It was important too, that one of the screenwriters, Kemp Powers who is black and made significant contributions towards remodeling the story, was promoted to co-director alongside Docter, proving that the reckoning over black lives and experiences is both executed on screen and off.
Pixar has been pushing the boundaries of quality animation for some time. As in previous films there is a great use of a colorful and a creative palette for the more cartoonish scenes of the afterlife, but when depicting life on earth the visuals were simply stunning. As with The Good Dinosaur () the characters in the film are clearly cartoon animations, however, the world around them is rendered in a photorealistic way. My jaw actually dropped when I saw how light gleamed off a trumpet or through a person’s hair. This animation skill, however, not only works for show, but narratively as well. By having the non-living world be incredibly realistic, while living things seem ethereal, it helps support the thesis of the spiritual and colorful addition that life adds to the planet, which otherwise would be pretty, but empty.
In the end, Soul proves to be an immersive philosophical exploration about life. It is fascinatingly constructed in a non-traditional manner yet retains a loving familiarity and hilarious humor. The film might prove to be infinitely more engrossing for adults than for kids, but then again, Pixar films nearly always are. Soul is littered with details, winks, and life lessons that you’ll want to revisit over and over again in the future.