Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wonder movie review

For inSing

WONDER

Director : Stephen Chbosky
Cast : Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, Mandy Patinkin, Crystal Lowe, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon
Genre : Drama/Family
Run Time : 1h 54m
Opens : 14 December 2017
Rating : PG

Everyone has felt like at outcast at some point or another in their lives. It seems August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has felt like at outcast at every point in his ten years alive. Auggie was born with a craniofacial condition and because of his deformity, has gotten used to drawing stares from strangers. Auggie’s parents Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) decide that after being home-schooled all this time, Auggie should enrol in a regular school.

Auggie faces his first day at Beecher Preparatory School with trepidation. The principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) has assigned three children to help Auggie feel welcome: Julian (Bryce Gheisar), Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and Jack (Noah Jupe). Julian relentlessly bullies Auggie and Charlotte can get a little over-excited, so Auggie finds himself becoming friends with Jack. Summer (Millie Davis) also decides to reach out to Auggie.

In the meantime, Auggie’s sister Olivia (Izabela Vidovic), nicknamed “Via”, feels neglected because her parents have shown Auggie so much attention. She develops a crush on her schoolmate Justin (Nadji Jeter), while grieving the loss of her grandmother (Sonia Braga). While adversity has figured strongly in the Pullmans’ lives because of Auggie’s condition, weathering this together also pulls them closer.

Wonder is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio. Director Steven Chbosky works from a screenplay he co-adapted with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Chbosky directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower based on his own book, which also dealt with themes of being different and navigating school as an outcast. Wonder is cuddlier and more conventional.

Cynics will be quick to decry it as sentimental and emotionally manipulative and, at times, Wonder tends towards that end of the spectrum. However, it is never so cloying and saccharine as to alienate viewers outright, and there is plenty here that is easy relatable – especially for the parents in the audience. Wonder deals with themes of acceptance, bullying and friendship in a familiar but amiable way. The film shifts between several points of view, letting the audience see the story through a few different perspectives. This device could’ve made the movie fragmented or messy, but the transitions are handled organically, and this approach fleshes the story out.

Jacob Tremblay burst onto the scene with his stirring turn in Room, and continues to prove his chops as Auggie. Crucially, the character has a personality and the film is quick to show that there’s so much more to Auggie than how he looks. Quite endearingly, Auggie is a Star Wars fan, like Tremblay is in real life. A certain Wookiee whom Auggie relates to appears in some imaginary sequences. Auggie is realistically withdrawn, but when he gets to open up to someone, becomes animated. The role is acted with considerable nuance.

Roberts plays the over-protective, stressed-out mum who’s always being pulled in many directions. Many mothers in the audience will recognise the constant frazzled state she’s in, and how Isabel has had to sacrifice her own dreams to care for her children. Wilson plays the cool, slightly goofy dad, and gets a few emotional moments in which Nate professes his love for Auggie.

Izabela Vidovic, who played the daughter of Jason Statham’s character in Homefront, also delivers a credible performance. It is to the story’s credit that one sibling feeling they must step aside for the other is explored in a satisfying manner. The romantic subplot between Via and Justin is simplistic, but is sweet and complements the rest of the film.

Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs provide solid supporting turns as principal and teacher respectively. Hamilton star Diggs is warm, but exercises restraint, such that Mr. Browne does not come off as a standard ‘inspirational teacher’ type. Patinkin brings a soulful authority to the role – every school should be so lucky to have a principal like Mr. Tushman.

Wonder might turn off the jaded, but this isn’t a movie made for them. Sure, the movie has its share of fortune cookie hokum, but there’s a palpable sincerity to it and there are sure to be viewers who’ll find it inspirational and uplifting. It falls short of profundity, but Wonder makes for a good movie to watch as a family and discuss afterwards.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong