Pixar’s Soul Wows and Confounds

Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’s Soul (2020)

A few lucky, socially distanced audiences in a handful of theaters were treated to the world premiere of Soul, Pixar’s latest family-friendly feature, at the London Film Festival this past Sunday, and we’ll get to the raves in a moment. First, though, we have to note that the two remaining screenings in London and the two bookending this year’s Rome Film Fest tomorrow and October 25 have sold out. And that will be that until Christmas Day, when Soul begins streaming on Disney+.

The studio’s decision to bypass a theatrical release has infuriated cinema owners around the world. On Monday, the International Union of Cinemas released a statement declaring that “operators have invested massively in offering the safest possible experience to their audiences on the basis of a promising schedule of new film releases. Yet again, however, they find a distributor delivering another blow . . . It is no exaggeration to say that by the time some studios decide that the moment is right to release their films, it may be too late for many European cinemas.” Then on Tuesday, AMC Theatres, the world’s largest exhibitor, announced that, given the “reduced movie slate for the fourth quarter,” the company expects to run out of cash by the end of the year or in early 2021.

The prospect of losing an untold number of independent theaters and at least one major chain is horrendous. But with new COVID cases—and deaths—on the rise again in the U.S. and Europe, further restrictions if not more full-blown lockdowns are all but inevitable. And with many movie lovers still reluctant to sit tight inside a theater for a couple of hours, never mind with their kids—AMC reports that attendance in the theaters it has reopened is down around eighty-five percent—it’s difficult to imagine that Soul could save the industry. Tenet didn’t.

Soul has been dreamed up by director and Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out), cowritten with playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) and screenwriter and journalist Mike Jones, and codirected with Powers—in a terrific backgrounder for the Telegraph, Robbie Collin explains how Powers got “promoted” during preproduction. The film opens in New York, where pianist Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, teaches music to middle school kids and dreams of a career in jazz. “Soul will be celebrated for many things, but chief among them should be the platform it gives, in American animation, to the great art form of jazz,” writes David Katz at the Film Stage. “The sequences of Joe riffing on piano off the other instruments, wandering into unknown improvisatory space, are some of the most touching in Pixar’s canon.”

On the day that Joe lands what’s sure to be his breakthrough gig, he falls through an open manhole and finds himself on a conveyor belt to the Great Beyond. Panicking, he falls again, this time to the Great Before, where tiny souls in the making prepare to become human. One of them, 22 (Tina Fey), has been resisting graduation for eons, and Joe is assigned to be her mentor. But Joe just wants his life back. “Joe doesn’t want to die and 22 doesn’t want to live,” writes Alex Dudok de Wit at Cartoon Brew. “In a sense, the pair respectively stand for humanity’s greatest fear and deepest despair . . . Soul contains some of the most emotionally raw moments in the Pixar canon.”

Soul evidently also looks terrific on the big screen, and for Screen’s Wendy Ide, “it’s on the bustling streets of New York that the film finds its core of magic, and its focus, through transcendent uplifting moments that could be triggered by anything, from jazz piano to a swirling sycamore seed to a really great slice of pizza. The filmmakers cite the drawings of cartoonist Ronald Searle and the 1961 Disney animation 101 Dalmatians as visual references, but there’s also a nod in there to the striking graphic quality of Blue Note album covers and 1950s beat art.”

In his review, Robbie Collin argues that Soul “sees the studio ascend Himalayan new peaks of imagination, artistry, and insight. That isn’t to understate the sheer ingenuity and nerve it must have taken, back in the early 1990s, to come up with a film as revolutionary as Toy Story. Yet it feels no less bold twenty-five years later to release a $150 million cartoon for all the family whose moral is essentially: Hey kids! Guess what? Life is short and meaningless!”

Others, like Jason Solomons at TheWrap, aren’t so sure what Docter and Powers are trying to get across. “Is it about living your dreams?” he asks. “Or about life being more than that? Or less than that?” The Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin detects “a kind of cartoon humanist non-denominational cosmology—a mix of Christianity and Buddhist notions filtered through C. S. Lewis’s 1945 novel The Great Divorce and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), with a bit of What Dreams May Come (1998) psychedelic kitsch thrown in for good measure.” For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, it’s “all very head-spinning, and there is real Yellow Submarine quality to the film’s innocent urgency and idealism which take it to the very brink of incoherence. That can sometimes be exasperating but also really captivating, especially in that final visual cadenza in which Docter and Powers are really are going above and beyond the traditional Hollywood ending. It’s a deeply sweet, happy, gentle film.”

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