Movie review: Pixar maintains winning streak with stirring ‘Soul’

Ever since “Toy Story” (1995), Pixar animated films are always special movie events. Even if sometimes they don’t hit the spot that well story-wise, they are still above average on the whole.

Among the directors at Pixar, Pete Docter would be the one who had been most consistent with the quality of his output. His previous feature films included “Monsters Inc.” (2001), “Up” (2009), and “Inside Out” (2015), all three considered among Pixar’s top 10 best films for many. It looks like his latest film “Soul” will be maintaining his winning streak.

High school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) was just about to fulfill his lifelong dream to play the piano onstage with his jazz idol. However, on his way home after his successful audition, Joe met a freak accident which caused his soul to leave his body and wind up on a conveyer belt en route to the Great Beyond. He could not accept this sudden fate so he tried to run back, but he fell off the belt and landed into a place called Great Before, where he was assigned to be the mentor of a troubled soul named 22 (Tina Fey).

“Soul” continued the long Pixar tradition of pairing a couple of problematic characters forced to help each other achieve their respective dreams. Here, this road trip would involve a cosmic inter-dimensional route. Joe needed to become a serious musician but he could not given his present circumstance, while 22 needed to earn that elusive spark so she can finally be ready to go live life on Earth. This film delved into complex philosophical issues about a person’s existence, even going beyond the abstract concepts tackled in “Inside Out.”

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The animation style of the Real World radically contrasted with those of the unconventional character designs of the After World, particularly in the Great Before where the wise soul counselors were two-dimensional abstract Picasso line faces and bodies, and the new innocent souls were cute and delightful spherical 3D characters. Joe was the first African-American lead character for a Pixar film and the topical focus on jazz music reflected his cultural pride.

Jamie Foxx’s voice captured Joe’s midlife frustration, exasperation and determination. Tina Fey’s voice gave 22 a lively ebullient spirit and a frank yet sensible tongue. Voicing other major characters were Phyllicia Rashad (as Joe’s concerned mother), Angela Bassett (as jazz saxophonist star Dorothea Williams), and Graham Norton (as Moonwind, a spirit in the Zone who guided lost souls back). Wes Studi, June Squibb and Questlove (of the Roots) are also in the cast in smaller roles.

“Soul” is a bold and profound excursion into topics not usually tackled in a mainstream animated film, daring to expound on the very meaning of human life. It was able to balance deep yet easily accessible existential discussions with the wholesome wit Pixar is known for.

Going beyond its whimsical images and heartwarming story, this thoughtful film succeeds in stimulating introspection on how close we are in our respective quests for earning that elusive spark which would complete our lives.

This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”

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