Soul review: a triumphant return to the most ambitious Pixar

It was a time, not so long ago, when Pixar Animation Studio seemed to redefine animated films with each new release, through technical development and narrative ambition. In an age of visually sophisticated computer graphics and rich, emotional animated storytelling, it’s easy to forget how boring animated projects can be in the days before Pixar, when most American animated filmmakers were dedicated to numbing Disney movies.

But Pixar stumbled shortly after the narrative triumph Toy Story 3. The focus of the studio shifted to sequels, while the original films Bravely i Good dinosaur went through problematic production processes and came out visibly scarred on the other side. For every inspired act of collective creativity like Inside Out or Coco, there was a decent enough Pixar film that lacked depth of feeling or focus which is why the studio got its name. Even Pixar’s latest original story, 2020s Forward, is at best a cute story about a shaggy dog ​​that seems completely prone to creating epic fantastic tropes as much as possible on everyday and working days.

All of this helps explain why it’s a new studio film for longtime Pixar fans Soul it feels like such an exciting return to form. The film, which now debuts directly at Disney Plus, is another groundbreaking news story, with the studio’s first studio protagonist and first focus on the black community, connections and art. Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and their co-writer Mike Jones take the film into a stunning new visual realm where they can completely indulge their imagination. But above all, Soul it feels like the best Pixar movies ever felt – deeply humanistic, with silly humor adapted to children and a sincere ceremony that feels like a full adult. Docter and Powers arm all of this in a story that literally and directly challenges the meaning of life.

The protagonist Joe watches a simpleton sing in the subway

Slika: Pixar

Small as the introductory frame is a reminder of how sophisticated Pixar animation can be. Directors start up close from the eyes of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a Queens jazz musician who earns part-time for lectures in high school class. As he listens to his students ’latest attack on music (a shaky version of Disney’s“ When You Want a Star ”standard), Joe looks stunned by the flat notes and inconsistency out of tempo. But he also keeps a sick smile glued to his face as he tries to encourage his children to take care of what they are doing and look for moments when they fall completely into the groove.

It’s a lot of character setting for one facial expression, but the clarity of Joe’s facial expression at that introductory moment says a lot about how much Pixar pulled his CGI characters out of the wondrous valley. In that one look into Joe’s sore, strenuous eyes, the audience already knows that he cares about music and from the permeation of children in his class with the passion he feels for it. He wants to encourage and support them. He also can’t quite believe what his life has become. When the school principal offers him a full-time job, he seems more appalled than delighted. What she sees as stability and permanence, he renounces his dream of ever being a true jazz musician.

Joe is a pianist, and a good one at that, but he never paused in the industry, and he had a pretty boring life while keeping all his other plans on hold. Then a former student, Curley (pronounced Questlove) invites him to audition with powerful saxophonist and band leader Dorothe Williams (Angela Bassett, in her finest arrogance). Joe goes to an audition and is sure that his real life will start soon – when he has a fatal accident and ends up in the Great Hereafter. Trying to get back to his body, he stumbles into the Great Before, where souls develop their personalities and prepare to go to Earth and be born in bodies. Together with a cheeky soul labeled 22 (Tina Fey), he devises a plan to kidnap the process and return to his life in time to leave a mark on jazz.

Soul it moves at a pretty breakneck speed for large parts of the story. Joe’s circumstances are constantly changing in the first two films – almost the moment the audience realizes who he is and where he’s going, they get a new setting and a new set of imperatives. But the film never feels disoriented or hurried as a result, and everything is in the service of contrasting with the sluggish and evoked third act that slows down long enough to ask some big questions about purpose and meaning.

Soul protagonist Joe confronts leader Dorothea in front of the club

File: Pixar Animation Studios

That doesn’t bother the reckless slapstick comedy that so often marks animated films. Docter is a Pixar vet who has directed some of the best features of the study (Monsters, Inc.,, Up, i Inside Out), and just as all three films alternate exciting emotional beats with a lot of wild races around, Soul maintains the same rhythm. The real comedy doesn’t begin completely until Joe and 22 meet some sort of afterlife hippie pirate named Moonwind (Graham Norton), but his entry into the story triggers a manic subplot that focuses on developing a relationship between Joe and the 22-year-old.

And through 22, screenwriters-directors have to examine the smallest and happiest miracles of life. 22 is a visually simple creature, little more than a glowing lollipop with eyes and teeth, which lacks all the specificity and detail of grounding that the film brings to its various New York neighborhoods. Since the soul has literally never lived and sees the allure of a physical body or life on a flawed and frightening Earth in a gradually decaying meat suit, Joe has the challenge to show 22 what it’s all about. Just as he does with his students, he must do so through his own outlook on life and his own fascinations and loves. He is nervous and demanding because of everything, because he is acting on time – his first gig with Dorothe is approaching and he doesn’t want to miss it.

If there is a flaw Soul, is that aspects of the film’s comedy may seem a little too big in addition to its more thoughtful moments. Joe’s audition for Dorothea, where he gets lost in making music, is a sweet miracle, and his arrival at Great Before is a stunning series of visual discoveries as he meets a series of higher beings named Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade, among others) who look equally inspired by Pablo Picasso and Al Hirschfeld. The transition of the first act from the grounded specificity of the school and tailoring shop in Queens (where Joe’s disapproving mother, and her voice was given by Phylicia Rashad) to the comforting plush-pastel haze of the Great before is quite breathtaking. Stupid physical comedy cannot meet that kind of standard.

But film visual innovations go a long way toward establishing a sense of goodwill that is carried out through bolder and repetitive action. The directors have obviously given a lot of thought to designing a world of another dimension that looks unfamiliar, yet soft and comforting, a kind of cuddly cradle that still feels stunningly alien. Even Joe’s transition from The One to the Before feels like a showreel, a series of dizzying visual experiments in which the filmmaker’s imagination gets the kind of free bridle that becomes more and more unusual as the animation tirelessly approaches visual realism.

The third act of the film reconnects the story. A simple scene in which the character looks at a tree, with sunlight filtering through the leaves and falling on their face, is as warm and life-affirming as anything Pixar has ever done. Soul takes on questions like “Does fantasy ever fulfill reality?” and “Can choices that give meaning to our lives really satisfy us?” but his best discoveries come from his moments of silence and simplicity. The montage in the late film, as Joe plays the piano and remembers scenes from his life, is reminiscent of the depth of the bitter-sweet, complicated emotions that every Pixar film once had.

Counselors Great Before, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry and Terry confront Joe and 22 in Soul

File: Pixar Animation Studios

And that is what makes it more than anything Soul feel like a return to the boldest days of Pixar. The best studio films have always focused on different kinds of stunning specifics, from famous childhood pretend games Toy Story space ballet without words in WALL-E. Soul it has big messages and playful images, but ultimately it’s the kind of film that encourages people to appreciate all the little joys of life, to take nothing for granted, and to be aware of the choices they make and the impact those choices have.

Soul he will enter into an endless analysis of the details that give it shape. One of his subtle but bold touches is that there are no significant white characters at all – it seems natural enough that people in Joe’s closest circle of family and friends are Black, but it is also noticeable that the authorities in his World, of smaller characters (principals, doctors) , a random cop) to the main ones (all advisors and accounts of the Great before) are also people of color, different gender and ethnicity. That choice and view of black life in the community — especially Joe’s relationship with his mother and the barber scene that defines how Joe treats his friends — will surely be studied and questioned for a long time.

Having another Pixar movie that calls for and supports that level of surveillance is again a relief. After a wave of Pixar movies that made money but didn’t start conversations, that sparked mild interest but not stronger emotions, Soul it feels like going back to an old friend for a satisfying conversation about life. It’s funny, surprising and powerful, but above all, it seems like Pixar is returning to the core values ​​that once defined it as a creative house and returning to an inspiring leader in the industry that once was.

Soul premieres Disney Plus December 25th.