Review: ‘Soul’ cements Pete Docter as one of our great storytellers

Pete Docter is one of the best directors of animated features working today. That might sound like hubris, but it isn’t. Each of his films is adorable, approachable, and visually stunning enough to warrant the praise, but each also has a core of love and acceptance that makes them universal. The marriage montage in Up! or the simple truth that sadness plays a key roll in our lives from Inside Out, Docter makes movies that tell truths.

Soul, his latest film, is no different.

The story follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher with dreams of being a famous jazz musician. On the same day that Joe is finally offered a full-time position with health care and a pension (much to his mother’s –Phylicia Rashad– elation), he also gets a chance to prove his worth a musician. Invited by a former student to audition for Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), she likes the cut of his jib and invites him to play with her that evening to see how he does in front of a crowd.

Joe is so excited by this that on his way home, he isn’t paying attention and walks right into an open maintenance hole in the middle of a crosswalk. His soul ends up on its way to the great beyond, but knowing that he potentially has his big break that evening, he manages to get off the line and ends up in the great before, the place where new souls are moulded into complete personalities before heading down to earth to be born, where he meets this films equivalent of angels and the unborn soul 22 (played by Tina Fey).

And that’s pretty much all I can tell you. It’s not an understatement to say that literally all of the film’s marketing is from the first act of the story, and what the story actually leads to. To let you in on it would be a disservice because even you figure it out before the end –and many of you likely will– it’s so well executed that it will still hit you directly in the feelings, much like the revelation about sadness from Inside Out.

What you have seen in the marketing is also only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the visuals, too. The various areas of the great before are rendered in some of the most creative and stunning ways that I can recall seeing on screen, and the cubist beings that run the whole show (played by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, and Rachel House) are each a delight in their own ways.

As the story unfolds, Foxx and Fey each give heartfelt and nuanced performances, and their chemistry helps keep you in each moment. Braga, Ayoade, Studi, and House are all great in their parts as well, and kudos to the team at Pixar for making sure that the afterlife is populated entirely by people from around the world.

Did I mention the music yet? Because the music is amazing also. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have become one of my favourite movie music makers, and the Jazz compositions by Jon Batiste are lively and engaging and soulful.

I wish that I had been able to see Soul on the big screen, to see all its shapes and colours larger than life and with a crown of people. We all know that can’t really happen right now, hence the movie moving to Disney+. I will say though that I think releasing this one on Disney+ –and at no extra charge– is the right choice for 2020. The film might not be as impressive on your TV screen, but the film’s message is one that deserves to have as many eyes on it as possible.

Pete Docter has been at Pixar a long time, and has writing or producing (or both) credits on most of their big hits. Each of the three films he directed before this one is a masterpiece. Soul joins those four films, and it is one of the best films of the year.

Soul premieres on Disney+ on Christmas Day.

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