Soul movie review: Pixar's latest mind-trip on life, afterlife and all that jazz

While most Pixar films appeal to children and adults, Soul is a film that would speak more to adults, especially those suffering through a midlife crisis.

Prahlad Srihari December 26, 2020 09:12:27 IST

3.5/5

In Pixar's Soul, the afterlife houses something called the “Hall of You." It is a museum of formative memories. We learn the film's protagonist, a musician named Joe, became a jazz-head after his father took him to a club when he was 10. It grew into a lifelong love for the art form. If we could peer into our own “Halls of You," many of us might likely find how our own lifelong love for the movies started with a Pixar film. For '90s kids, it was perhaps Toy Story. For 2000s, it was WALL-E.

For kids in the 2010s, it was Inside Out, where Pete Docter made us peer inside our own minds, and get in touch with our emotions. Soul surveys a no less complex world, plunging us to an unsurveyed narrative terrain that defines the essence of being human. If Inside Out personified the emotions of an 11-year-old girl, the new Pixar film personifies the soul of a middle-school music teacher.

Soul movie review Pixars latest mindtrip on life afterlife and all that jazz

Still from Soul

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) finally gets the breakthrough he has been dreaming of all his life. He has the opportunity to play piano alongside noted saxophonist Dorothea Williams in her band. When a break like that comes after you have waited for so long with a mother insisting on “back-up plans” and “real careers," the euphoria knows no bounds. “I will die a happy man if I could play with Dorothea Williams,” he says, as casually and figuratively as one does in a joyful frenzy.

Only this throwaway comment turns more literal than he would have liked. Hours before his gig, he falls into an open manhole — and dies. Instead of dropping into the sewers, Joe, or rather his soul, finds himself on an escalator to the Great Beyond. Refusing to accept his fate and eager to return to his Earthly vessel, he attempts to flee the afterworld with the help of an unborn soul. Like Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, they are a duo at odds with each other — and forced to work together for mutual benefit in a fantastical realm. 

Soul movie review Pixars latest mindtrip on life afterlife and all that jazz

Still from Soul

To get back to Earth, Joe must first blend in to the afterworld. He does this by enrolling in a mentorship programme where he is assigned to help unborn soul number 22 (Tina Fey) awaken her inner spark, her lust for life. Only on doing so can she transfer to Earth and begin her temporal existence. 22, however, has defied mentorship from the likes of Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln and Carl Jung. She prefers the immaterial to the material, as evidenced by zingers like “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what Earth is for.”

Pixar has shown over the years they love the challenge of representing the unrepresentable. Remember Inside Out's Abstract Thought. The afterworld is cut from the same conceptual cloth. The Great Before is represented as a meadow-y cross between a summer camp and a Cubist art gallery. The soul counsellors, who oversee the Great Before, are like something out of Picasso's line sketches, all angular forms and squiggly shapes. These stylistic choices also owe a lot to Norman McLaren's figurative animation. 

Soul movie review Pixars latest mindtrip on life afterlife and all that jazz

Still from Soul

22 is Joe's guide (and ours) through the afterworld. Her snarky comments ensure the exposition dump doesn't feel as weighty. The Great Before is where souls take shape and take on personalities before they sync up with their respective newborns on Earth. Soul proposes personalities, like aloofness and excitability, come pre-cooked before birth. John Locke and the empiricists will disagree of course.

The kids will love the body-swapping second act, where Joe finds himself in a cat's body and 22 in Joe's. Sure to raise a chuckle or two are the slapstick interludes, where 22 adjusts to Joe's lanky limbs and navigates the various hurdles in the New York hustle. The animators vividly capture 22's first sensorial experiences on Earth. For instance, it's love at first bite for 22 and pizza. 

Soul movie review Pixars latest mindtrip on life afterlife and all that jazz

Still from Soul

The film's chronicle of daily life in New York boasts of a wealth of immersive detail. A world of street musicians, sign twirlers, and subway commuters comes to life, like in a Will Eisner graphic novel. The infectious score too sinks perfectly into this milieu. The sequences where Joe gets in “the zone” feature lively piano solos from Jon Batiste. If these give the film a strong jazz identity, the synth accompaniment from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross lends a precise cohesion to its overall mood.

While most Pixar films appeal to children and adults, Soul is a film that would speak more to adults, especially those suffering through a midlife crisis.

It isn't the cure-all balm for the soul you wish it was at the end of a terrible year. Its tacked-on ending might ring hollow for some. For others, it might just give them the hope to power through their crises.

If you're trying to make a family affair out of watching Soul, think twice. Its cartoon facade, full of cute Caspars and slapstick comedy, can only keep the youngest distracted for so long, while the adults are getting preached to. If Inside Out was about how joy loses its meaning if it's the one constant emotional state, Soul is about how life loses its meaning if you try too hard to search for a defining purpose. It's also a plea to not get disillusioned even if you're trapped in an endless routine. You don't need a Pixar movie to be reminded of that. Grab a Reader's Digest.

Soul is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.

Rating: ***1/2

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