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  • Articles by Sonali

    Film review: Soul

    What is the meaning of life? Soul, a new animated film from the Pixar Animation Studios explores this hefty question through the journey and experiences of the central protagonist Joe Gardner, a jazz musician from an African American background. Soul is the first Pixar film to feature an African American lead character. The film is co-written and directed by Pete Docter (Up and Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami). Docter said Soul is ‘pretty deep for a cartoon’. 

    Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a band teacher at a middle school in Queens, New York who dreams of being a jazz pianist. In the film’s rambunctious opening sequence, band practice is in progress and there is a cacophony of sounds. Gardner’s pupils are badly out of tune.

    From the outset, the animation is beautifully rendered. The classroom setting is depicted with photographic precision while the figures have exaggerated limbs and facial features. There is a focus on Gardner’s hands and long fingers which are modelled on those of Jazz composer Jon Batiste who wrote and performed the jazz score for the Earth-based parts of the film. Batiste aimed to make jazz accessible to a wider audience.

    In the film, Gardner is called by a former student to audition for the gig of a lifetime in saxophonist Dorothea William’s (Angela Bassett) legendary jazz band. The audition is successful but on the way home, overcome by excitement, he missteps and falls down a manhole while crossing the street.

    At this point there is a complete change of scene and mood. The story switches into surreal territory. Gardner, now transformed into a little blobby blue soul, finds himself in outer space on an illuminated cosmic conveyor belt to the Great Beyond. He turns back to the Great Before or Soul World because he must play at the jazz gig and he isn’t quite dead yet.

    The Soul World landscape is simple in its design: vast, floating hills, cypress trees and sculptures in shades of pink and purple but this section of the film is packed with information and ideas. It is populated by luminous, new born souls overseen by Supreme Beings or Counsellors (Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade) that look like Cubist drawings. The safe, sweet atmosphere is emphasised by a soft, soothing electronic soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross highlighting the distinction between the Earth and Soul worlds.

    The new-born souls are given their personality traits in Soul World at the You Seminar. Gardner mentors new-born soul number 22 (Tina Fey) helping her to find her spark. But number 22 is cynical about leaving Soul World for Earth - ‘you can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for’. Gardner plans to use number 22’s Earth pass to get back to the jazz gig in New York.  

    Two key supporting roles add brightness and lightness to the film: the Mystic/ Astral traveller Moonwind (voiced by Graham Norton) who helps Gardner move in between Earth and the Soul worlds. Rachel House is the voice of Terry whose job it is to count the souls on their way to the Great Beyond. Terry launches a search for Gardner when she finds out he is missing.

    Jamie Foxx is convincing in his portrayal of Gardner and the character is well written. The story does seem to lag though in the episodic second half when Gardner and number 22 return to Earth in a body swap scenario and their rapport is jarring at times. His relationship with his mother (Phylicia Rashad) who runs a tailoring shop and with Dorothea Williams (the jazz saxophonist) is more plausible. Gardner is reminded by them both that, besides pursuing his dream gig, he should enjoy life’s journey and appreciate the everyday stuff; like strolling down the streets of New York on a sunny Autumn day, hearing a busker playing in the subway, eating pizza.

    The film is likely to have a wide appeal. There are scenes choreographed to jazz music which, when combined with the element of slapstick comedy and the high quality animation, will appeal to a younger audience while grown-ups might appreciate and relate to Gardner’s story of existential angst and the film’s ability to visualise metaphysical concepts. In the audition we see Gardner playing a jazz tune on the piano. He begins to improvise and seems to be transported ‘into the zone’, transcending reality.

    Apparently, the filmmakers of Soul consulted a Pixar Cultural Trust consisting of African American employees including co-director Kemp Powers to ensure the depiction of Joe, his life and community was captured with accuracy and authenticity in the film. 

    Soul is original, imaginative and thought-provoking without being overly saccharine and provides engaging and whimsical viewing in lockdown.




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