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

Inside Out

For F*** Magazine

INSIDE OUT

Director : Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Cast : Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 27 August 2015
Rating : PG
Pixar takes viewers on the ultimate head trip in this animated comedy set in the mind of an 11 year-old-girl. Riley Andersen (Dias) is a typical kid, with loving parents and a penchant for ice hockey. She begins to experience mood swings when her family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco, and we get an inside look at why things are going bumpier than usual. The personifications of five emotions – Joy (Poehler), Sadness (Smith), Fear (Hader), Disgust (Kaling) and Anger (Black) – live and work in Riley’s mind, operating out of “headquarters”. Joy runs a tight ship and comes into conflict with Sadness, whose purpose in Riley’s mind is not apparent. When Joy and Sadness get stranded outside headquarters, they must overcome their inherent differences and find their way home to ensure Riley can be well-adjusted and happy. 
Pixar has built a reputation as a studio with a particular knack for effective, moving storytelling, and Inside Out is their strongest effort in recent memory. Many have pointed out that the premise isn’t exactly original, with 90s sitcom Herman’s Head and animated adventure flick Osmosis Jones cited as having similar premises. However, directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, along with the Pixar story crew they assembled, ensure Inside Out is anything but derivative. Many Hollywood animated films are made for the express purpose of selling toys. Pixar has set itself apart by prioritizing storytelling, with the toy sales following naturally. They’ve even made a series of films all about toys that packed a surprising amount of emotional resonance. Everything about Inside Out just works, from the concept up, and the effort and attention to detail invested at every step of the way is all onscreen. 
Docter has said the primary inspiration for Inside Out came from his pre-teen daughter Elie and wondered what it would be like if her emotions had personalities of their own. This starting point ensures the film is easy to relate to from the get-go, since everyone knows what it’s like to struggle with their feelings at some point or another. The film was made with the input of psychologists Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, and Inside Out strikes that vital balance of portraying the inner workings of the mind with sensitivity and deftness while retaining the accessibility and entertainment value the film requires. The screenwriters gamely tackle the unique challenge of creating fleshed-out characters who are explicitly defined by a singular trait, which must have taken a great deal of figuring out. The bulk of the story is reminiscent of a buddy road trip film, with Joy and Sadness traversing the labyrinth of Riley’s long-term memory, meeting various other characters in Riley’s mind along the way. The character dynamics all click right into place and there is a laudable amount of depth in these ostensible caricatures. 
Many animated films cast big-name movie stars to draw in the parents, the fact that they might not be competent voice actors be damned. Pixar has generally avoided this pitfall and Inside Out features one of the best voice casts they’ve ever wrangled. The ensemble comprises many established comedians, including several Saturday Night Live alums. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith play off each other remarkably well – typically, voice actors record their parts separately with the tracks assembled later, but Poehler and Smith got to record together and their chemistry benefits the story immensely. Lewis Black, well-known for his grumpy stand-up comedy persona, is the logical choice for Anger. Naturally, it would have been easy to deliver a one-note performance, but all the voice actors are able to find wiggle room within their character’s defined personalities, not unlike how Scott Adsit was able to imbue Baymax with enough warmth while still sounding like a robot in last year’s Big Hero 6. Richard Kind, voicing Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, brings whimsy and heart to the character who aids Joy and Sadness in their odyssey. 
Inside Out is also expectedly gorgeous to look at, presenting a dazzling array of landscapes for the story to unfold against. Headquarters is reminiscent of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and there is an amusingly inventive sequence set in the realm of abstract thought. The character designs are obvious but apt and the colour-coding is visual storytelling at its simplest and most effective. The skin of each of the emotions is like an effervescent plush toy and it’s a tiny design flourish that goes a long way. 
One of the most cogent and evocative explorations of mental health ever committed to the screen, Inside Out is the ideal jumping-off point for many a meaningful post-movie family discussion. It will certainly prove very helpful to children and parents struggling to understand and cope with emotional changes and conditions like depression and anxiety. It’s also a film that bears revisiting; an 8-year-old will enjoy it on one level but discover totally new facets of the film at 13. Inside Out makes a compelling case for the necessity of sadness and other emotions that are generally perceived as negative, conveying this message through a visually-arresting adventure story. It’s also very humorous and while the term “emotional roller coaster” is thrown about a lot, it is as apt a description of Inside Out as any. Lava, the short film attached to the front of the feature presentation, has proved divisive, but this reviewer was quickly moved to tears by its charming volcano love story spanning millions of years. 

Summary: At once heart-rending and euphoric, Pixar’s odyssey of the mind is a triumph in every regard, from its story to its design to its excellent voice cast.
RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong