Pixar's 'Soul' Footage Reaction: This Might Be Pixar's Most Mature, Bizarre, and Ambitious Movie Yet
Back in 2015, director Pete Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmen brought us Inside Out, introducing us to the emotions and inner-workings inside the mind of an 11-year old girl. It was a touching exploration of the trials and tribulations of growing up, and much of the movie took place in a completely imagined, ethereal environment. Now Pete Docter is telling us a new beautiful story by way of another otherworldly plane with Pixar’s Soul, and it might be one of the animation studio’s most ambitious films yet.
Back in September, Pixar invited /Film to participate in a virtual press event, which included an early look at the first 40 minutes of the movie, roughly the first act and a little bit more. And let me tell you, Soul is not only one of the more mature and bizarre stories that Pixar has told, but it has some truly enchanting animation, both in the realism of the human world and in the imaginative and unusual beauty of the soul world known as The Great Before.
Soul follows Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher in New York City who has a passion for jazz. But despite having a job that allows him to share his love for music with a younger generation, it’s hardly his dream job. Instead, Gardner still has hopes of being a professional jazz pianist, despite his mother (Phylicia Rashad) wishing for him to be satisfied with the stability that he has in his life. But lo and behold, Gardner’s big break may have finally arrived when he finally lands a gig playing with world-renowned jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).
The depiction of Joe’s passion for music deserves special praise here, because I’ve never seen an animated movie so accurately or perfectly show a character playing an instrument like Joe plays the piano. Joe’s hands move effortlessly and quickly over the keys, and it should be noted that the piano itself looks mind-blowingly realistic. In fact, many of the settings and props, especially the instruments, look astoundingly real. There’s a close-up shot of a saxophone being played that made my jaw drop. Adding to the mesmerizing depiction of music is the more abstract, stylized animation used when Joe immerses himself fully in music, putting him “in the zone.”
Unfortunately, after this uplifting, beautiful musical scene, Joe is celebrating his dream so excitedly that he accidentally steps right into an open manhole in the middle of the street and finds himself falling into The Great Before. Well, first he’s on the path to The Great Beyond, but since he’s not going to give up his jazz aspirations that easily, he falls into the world where new souls discover their personalities, quirks and interests before they’re put into a human body on Earth.
Cool colors and soft textures fill out The Great Before, a dreamlike plane populated by Casper-esque new souls personified like photocopies of the same ghostly children running through fields, learning lessons about Earth, and trying out anything and everything to discover their personalities and find their spark. There are also glowing, wiry overseers called Counselors who all happened to be named Jerry and can manipulate their 2D-line bodies into any form. One of them is voiced by Richard Ayoade, and he couldn’t be more eager to help new souls. Meanwhile, another shorter, less helpful kind of Counselor named Terry (voiced by Rachel House) has noticed that the count of souls in The Great Before is currently off thanks to Joe’s presence.
The Great Before is a fascinating landscape, and the animation used to bring it to life is nothing short of breathtaking. You’ll marvel at how a single line can be manipulated to bring the Counselors (seen above) to life. And you’ll have a good laugh when you’re introduced to the concept of lost souls, though at first they can seem frightening thanks to an initially dark depiction that makes them out to be deformed, droning monsters. There’s also a bit of experimentation in the animation, especially in the depiction of the path to The Great Beyond and Joe’s fall into The Great Before, where he temporarily transforms from a glowing sort of spirit into a warped white, chalk-like sketch.
Accompanying these amazing visuals is an score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross unlike any music ever featured in a Pixar film. The sounds are just as otherworldly as the sights, creating a vibe that truly makes The Great Before feel even more metaphysical and captivating. On top of that, the jazz music in Soul is exquisite too.
As Joe Gardner dashes around The Great Before in a desperate attempt to get back into his body, he’s mistaken as a mentor for the new souls. The mentors are souls who have been to Earth before and in the afterlife have opted to help new souls who are struggling find their way. They have more distinct features than new souls, making it easy to recognize the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Joan of Arc, Nelson Mandela, Vincent Van Gogh, Aretha Franklin, Catherine the Great, Muhammad Ali and more. And all of them have failed to help Joe’s new soul apprentice 22.
Voiced by Tina Fey, 22 is one of the earliest souls in existence (hence the lower number for a name), but she’s never quite reached the point where she’s ready to go to Earth, making her very knowledgeable about not just The Great Before, but also understanding enough of Earth to make her cynical about ever actually making it there (she also has developed certain traits that other fresh-faced new souls haven’t). It should come as no surprise that the biggest laughs come from Fey’s character, who is so lackadaisical and sarcastic about her existence that she’s driven many of her historic mentors crazy. A running gag includes cutaways to how her time with several recognizable mentors went wrong, and it’s very funny (and will probably go right over the heads of many kids).
On a touching sidenote, there’s a scene worth a freeze frame where you can see the names of dozens of the people who have tried to mentor 22 over the years. Among them is a touching tribute to the late Joe Ranft, a Pixar veteran who unfortunately passed away back in 2005. This scene is probably full of Easter eggs.
But Joe sees 22’s repeated failure to be mentored as an opportunity for him to get back to his body in time for his big gig. If he can help her find her spark, then maybe she can show him how to get back into his body. But obviously, it’s a task not easily completed, and in his attempts, we learn a lot about how The Great Before works, including the Hall of You, a sort of museum exhibit that shows souls who have already lived on Earth the finer points of their life. Gardner is a little let down by his Hall of You since it’s full of plenty of failure and disappointment in his aspirations to become a jazz pianist. For one reason or another, he’s never realized his full potential, and thus he’s never truly been happy. That’s why he’s so desperate to get back into his body.
This is where Pixar seems to up the eventual lesson of appreciating the world around you and your place in it, even if you never got to fully realize your dreams. It’s not about being complacent with mediocrity, but realizing that there’s a lot to love about our lives, even in the face of our own failure and shortcomings. At least that’s what I took from the first half of the movie. But the end of the footage shown to us teased a whole new facet to the film involving a therapy cat keeping Joe’s comatose body company in the hospital, so Pixar might have some more tricks and lessons up their sleeve too.
The first 40 minutes of Soul have a lot of heavy lifting to do. Not only does it have to set up Joe Gardner as a character that you want to root for, it has to establish this ethereal plane and explain how it all works. And it has to do that in a way where both parents and kids will understand it. This means there’s an ample amount of exposition, but the visuals that accompany it make for a fascinating introduction to the world of souls. Combine that with some clever writing and the promise of an existential lesson about life and happiness, and we’ve got the makings of a movie that’s hopefully at least as good as Inside Out. If we’re lucky, it might even be better. We’ll find out when it hits Disney+ on Christmas Day.
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