“Soul” is a truly inspired film. It blends a fantastic score, an interesting premise, unique art and great voice performances by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey to create one a to create one of the best Disney/Pixar movies in years. The film is a heartfelt, moving adventure that poses interesting questions about the true meaning of life.
“Soul” immediately captures attention through its unique premise. Joe Gardner is a middle-aged jazz band teacher for a middle school in New York City. It is clear that Joe’s passions still lie in the performance of jazz, and that he feels stuck teaching this class. However, a call from one of his former students grants him the opportunity of a lifetime in the form of an audition for a popular jazz quartet who is missing a pianist. Joe accepts this offer without hesitation and nails the audition, landing him a spot in the quartet with a gig that night.
Ecstatic, Joe runs through the streets of New York before being unceremoniously killed by falling down a manhole. He finds himself on his way to the Great Beyond but defies this fate and finds himself in the metaphorical Great Before, where all souls are created. Being mistaken as a mentor for these souls, Joe finds himself paired with a problem soul dubbed 22, who he is supposed to help find a “spark” to inspire her will to live. Because of 22’s apprehension of life and Joe’s desperation to get back to his gig on Earth, the two form an unlikely bond to help Joe return to his body.
The highlight of the film’s story is the dynamic of Joe and 22. Most of the film’s comedy comes from these two characters bouncing off each other. Their differences also inspire a great deal of change in each other. Throughout the story, the two both learn to appreciate life as a whole a bit more. 22, who begins as a jaded, apprehensive character, learns to appreciate life with a childlike wonder as Joe introduces her to the little joys of the world. Joe, who has been obsessed with music his entire life, begins to learn about what he’s been missing as he sees 22 grow to love Earth. The dynamic nature of these characters makes the film particularly thought-provoking and inspiring. It addresses many of the ways people can bury themselves in their own struggles and forget about the beauty of what surrounds them daily. While “Soul” may not be as fantastical as some other Disney/Pixar movies, its message makes the film one of the more memorable ones.
The strongest aspect of “Soul” is its wonderful score. The film creates a dichotomy between the scenes on Earth and in the Great Before through its use of music. The scenes on Earth are accompanied by upbeat, energetic jazz music. The scenes in the Great Before and other metaphorical locales opt for a more ethereal, electronic-sounding score. It is impressive how well these two styles of music can be used in one film without becoming jarring. This music choice peaks during a chase scene in the latter half of the movie, where the setting switches from Earth to the Great Before midway through. The transition from the quick, loud jazz to the reserved, mysterious ambience of the metaphorical flowed seamlessly.
The moments when the score broke the conventions of the soundtrack were some of the best points in the film. Joe’s piano solos in some scenes are mystifying. They use Earthly instrumentation to create an ethereal sound between both settings. There are also a few scenes where the score is completely removed, giving the viewer a chance to appreciate the beauty of the scene through the characters’ point of view. Hearing the rustling of leaves, people happily chatting at a cafe, and the ambience of the city drives home the point that life’s small moments should never be forgotten.
“Soul” would struggle presenting the beauty of life without great art direction. The character designs on Earth are relatively grounded for the studio, while being just cartoony enough to prevent a dip into the uncanny valley. The design of New York City is wonderful. The environments are detailed and choosing Autumn as the season adds to the color of each background. The metaphorical locations are interesting as well, with vibrant colors and seemingly endless landscapes. The deities presented in these locations are designed to look like modern, abstract art. They seem to switch between 2D and 3D on a whim, and it’s hard to imagine trying to animate such abstract character designs. The artists pulled off a beautiful film in “Soul.”
Overall, “Soul” is a heartfelt, inspiring experience. It pushes the medium of animation to deliver a truly unique experience exploring how people find meaning in their lives. While this subject matter might be heavy, “Soul” is able to stay upbeat and create an exciting adventure with its interesting cast and premise. “Soul” is another great movie from Disney/Pixar and bodes well for the studio’s future releases.
I give “Soul” 4.5/5 stars.