Sunday, December 27, 2020

Soul (+ Burrow)

Like Onward, I will admit that I wasn’t sure whether I would watch Pixar’s follow-up film Soul, if only because of how the story was presented in the initial trailers. Like many films this year, Soul became a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially pushing out the release date before finally being resigned to a Christmas release on Disney+. Since Soul was presented for free to subscribers rather than the premium model of the Mulan remake, I decided to give the movie a fair chance, finding it to be far better than what I initially expected and one of the best new films I have seen this year.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has recently been offered a full-time position as a middle school music teacher, having worked part-time previously, but he dreams of holding a career as a jazz musician. A chance finally comes when one of his former students, Curley (Questlove), gives him the opportunity to play for Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a high-profile jazz musician. In spite of his mother’s objection to seeking a jazz career, Joe takes a shot and lands the gig, however as he’s delivering the good news over his phone, he falls into a manhole without looking. Next thing he knows his soul is now in the Great Beyond, however he manages to escape and finds himself in the Great Before.

Similarly to Inside Out, the movie tackles some heavy subject matter in an interesting and tasteful way. Whereas that movie tackled emotions, mainly the importance of sadness, Soul explores life and the search for purpose. Joe’s interactions with 22 (Tina Fey), an unborn soul in the Great Before who can’t find the “spark” she needs in order to live, are entertaining to watch and lead to some funny moments, and at the same time bring up such questions about purpose without beating you over the head with it. Some of the film’s imagery also taps into this, often in an emotional or thought-provoking manner.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, left) tries to get back to his own body while
also helping 22 (Tina Fey) find her "spark".

On that note, one thing Soul exceeds in is the visuals. The designs of the human cast opt for more of a look based in caricature, allowing them to feel visually distinct from each other and for the movie to stand out from other Pixar films that rely on human characters. The non-human characters seem to take some influence from Inside Out, however, amongst many of the other visual effects, I was particularly impressed by the animation for the keepers of the Great Before and Great Beyond, who have more two-dimensional designs and are done in a way that makes them feel not of this world.

As for the audio department, one highlight is the voice acting. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey have a surprisingly good chemistry together and play off each other well, each bringing out the full emotional range of Joe and 22 respectively. As the premise also has a heavy focus on it, the music is good as well, with some interesting jazz pieces and a realistic depiction of the sort of cacophony you’d likely hear from amateur music students.

When Soul was planned for a theatrical release, it was meant to be paired with a Pixar SparkShort called Burrow, which follows a rabbit who is embarrassed by her plans for her burrow when compared to other animals. This plan obviously did not come to pass when the movie became a Disney+ Original in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however the short was released to the service at the same time as its parent feature. Upon confirming this, I also watched the short right after the movie, and so I will also be talking about Burrow here.

The story is told entirely without dialogue, allowing the body language of the characters to carry the narrative, plus the main character's social awkwardness resonated with me on a personal level. This is paired with some really good traditional animation, leading to some more emotional moments within the six-minute runtime. The animation also made me think of The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales to an extent, though Burrow uses an art style separate from that film and is charming in its own way. Either way, if this short’s art direction were applied to an entire Pixar film, I would gladly watch it.

It would be interesting to see Pixar animate an entire movie like this.
(The main character is to the right.)

Despite my initial expectations, I can confidently say that Soul is a must-see film from this year and one of Pixar’s best in the last few years. The subject matter is a bit heavy for much of their usual output, however it’s handled with a lot of heart, as is the animation. If you have Disney+ and plan to stream this movie in the near future, I would highly suggest watching Burrow alongside it to complete the theater-going experience.

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