This existential Pixar animated feature is full of life.
I’ve watched Pixar’s latest masterpiece “Soul” in the same analogy as thinking that immediately after midnight, it’s Christmas morning. The movie was supposed to come out in theaters, but thanks to COVID-19, it was moved to Disney+ on Christmas Day, and it wouldn’t be released until 3am. Call me crazy, but also call me persistent, because I was willing to set my alarm clock to 3am to see it. I’ve been patient long enough, and I was eager to see it.
In the privacy of my own room and in the safety of my own home, I was left in spellbound silence. It’s a miracle of an animated feature-one that focuses on life and death, and balances its viewership for both kids and adults.
The film was directed by Pete Docter, whose previous directing jobs were “Monsters Inc.” “Up,” and “Inside Out,” which you may recall was my pick of the best film of 2015. I met him at a screening of that film 5 years ago, and seeing each movie, he appears to be toping himself with one masterpiece after another. “Soul” is everything I expected it to be: a wonderful film.
Pixar introduces us to its first African-American main protagonist. His name is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), and he’s a middle-aged high school music teacher in New York City, who dreams of nothing more than becoming a famous jazz musician. His dream becomes a reality, when the famous saxophone player Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett) invites him to play in her quartet tonight. He gets enthusiastic to the point of him falling in a man hole, and waking up as a spirit.
These souls are CGI green and blue cartoon characters with traditionally animated outlines. And when Joe breaks away from his elevator to the afterlife, he finds himself in the before life, where souls develop their personalities and goals before going to Earth. He must tutor the most cynical soul called 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) into find her quirks. 22 has the analogy of an aimless teenager, as she finds nothing exhilarating about Earth, and when they find a way there, he allows her to see the light.
The world of “Soul” reminds you of such films as “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Princess and the Frog,” the “Rhapsody in Blue segment in “Fantasia 2000,” and even a Dr. Seuss TV special called “The Hoober-Bloob Highway.” The music, the African-American themes, the New York City setting, its views on life and death, and the characters who experience them. Seeing the attention to detail to the humans is marvelous, seeing the soul counselors as traditionally animated picasso outlines is delightful, and seeing their environments is beyond magical.
The voice acting is superb. Foxx and Fey voice characters, who connect with each other, and see their own aspects on life. Their voices bring out the best of them, and you just love hearing them. You also get an all-star cast including Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade as some soul counselors, Rachel House as a soul accountant, Graham Norton as a spiritual sign spinner, Questlove as a drummer in Dorothea’s quartet, and Daveed Diggs as a doubter in Joe’s neighborhood. All of them made me smile, especially Rashad and Bassett’s vocal performances.
I loved every minute of this movie. I loved the screenplay by Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers (the same genus behind “One Night in Miami”), I loved the characters, I love the score by Trent Razor and Atticus Ross, and I especially love how Docter knows his animated features and expresses his views on various topics. In this case, it’s existential. This is the best animated film of 2020. You know what? Scratch that. It’s the best movie of the year, period.
Streaming on Disney+