For months, Disney shuffled around the release of its latest Pixar Animation film “Soul,” a highly anticipated feature starring Jamie Foxx as Pixar’s first Black lead character. While initially slated for theatrical release in June, Disney announced “Soul” would instead premiere exclusively on Disney+ on Dec. 25, 2020. Despite the changed release date, “Soul” managed to arrive right on time, delivering a message that carries newfound importance at the end of a devastating year.
“Soul,” directed by Pete Docter, follows Joe Gardner (Foxx), a middle-aged middle school band teacher in New York City. Joe believes that his true purpose lies beyond the classroom; he hopes to book a breakthrough gig and become a professional jazz pianist.
One day, a former student named Curly (Questlove) tells Joe about an opening for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Dorothea Williams (Angela Basset) reigns as a jazz legend, and Joe hopes that this opportunity could be his big break. At the audition, Joe gets into “the zone,” and his piano playing impresses Dorothea enough to get him the gig.
On the way home, however, one misstep sends Joe falling down a pothole; as his soul spills out of his body, Joe winds up in a metaphysical realm called The Great Before, the place where unborn souls reside. These souls must find their “spark” before they are allowed to go to Earth. While looking to return to Earth, Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), an unborn soul with hilarious wit who spent hundreds of years in The Great Before because she has never found her spark. Realizing they can help each other out, Joe and 22 team up to help Joe return to Earth and get to his gig.
The screenplay and story of “Soul” came from Docter (director of “Inside Out”), Kemp Powers (screenwriter of “One Night in Miami”) and Mike Jones. The film explores complex questions about passion, success, purpose and life itself; these lofty conceptual ambitions find their footing in relatable, strong characters and comedic respites.
For instance, Joe and 22 enter “the zone,” a literalized realm resting between the physical and spiritual worlds, where they meet Moonwind (Graham Norton), whose soul captains a psychedelic galleon while his physical body twirls signs on a street corner. The scene operates on several philosophical planes as it explores how passion spills into obsession and how the search for life’s true purpose can cause a soul to become lost.
The animation in “Soul” is beautiful and vivid. The Great Before is a soft, hazy wash of blues, pinks and purples, while its administrators, a collective known as the Jerrys, are drawn through unique linework that inverts and contorts itself to create a clever puzzle for the eyes. The opening scene transports viewers to Joe’s hilariously cacophonous classroom where no one’s in tune, pages of sheet music fly like paper airplanes and trumpets suck up loose candy like a vacuum. In “Soul,” worldbuilding is about capturing essence, mood, rhythms and noise — features that make places feel alive.
The filmmakers invited real-life musicians to collaborate on the music, and the animators modeled Joe’s playing after the hands of Jon Batiste, celebrated pianist and bandleader for the house band Stay Human on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Every lunge of Joe’s hands or shift in his posture feels authentic. As Joe gets lost in his playing, the sound of the piano runs and bubbles like water. It’s a marvel to watch the twinkling and free expression of jazz improvisation when it’s reproduced through an extremely technical animation process that one would think to leave little room for spontaneity.
“Soul” easily sits in the company of Pixar’s greatest movies. Rich with symbolism, humor, heart and great music, the film reminds audiences of the things that truly matter — things that may have gotten lost in times of chaos and uncertainty. It offers a gentle reminder that your accomplishments do not determine your worth. The film presents jazz as a way of living, relying on improvisation and being in the moment; as Joe tells his students, “the tune is just an excuse to bring out the you.”