Directors – Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Cast – Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade
To get a real sense of a filmmaker’s intentions, don’t base your judgement on how they cast the lead roles. Look at the extras, instead.
Here’s the thing: Disney has a history of appropriating cultures for profit, but it’s also a studio that has always been conscious of the changing times. Soul, the new Pixar movie, is a confident stride in the right direction. It honours Black culture like few mainstream animated films before it, it gives a Black man with no experience in animation a co-director credit, and I’ll be damned if I don’t appreciate it for honouring pizza with the screen time and the respect that it deserves.
Watch the Soul trailer here
It’s part body-swap comedy, part existential tragedy; but visually and philosophically, it owes a major debt of gratitude to the new-age ruminations of the Wachowski sisters. Half of its characters look like they were designed by a blindfolded Picasso, and others look like the sort of European hippies you’d find down a Rishikesh alley, singing bhajans to themselves.
Soul tells the story of a middle-aged, middle school band teacher named Joe Gardner, who has long harboured a (well-publicised) dream of playing jazz onstage. In the film’s opening scene, he’s offered a permanent job at the school he teaches at. But Joe’s face drops at the prospect of having job security. It would mean that his passion would have to take a backseat.
But as luck would have it, a local jazz singer has an open spot in her band, and after impressing her at an audition, Joe’s given the shot he’s been waiting for all his life. Barely able to contain his excitement, Joe skips back home, but on the way, falls into an open manhole and ends up in hospital. The only trouble is this — Joe’s ‘soul’ has been separated from his body and trapped in some sort of afterlife limbo, on the fast-track to the Pearly Gates. So much for never giving up on those dreams.
But Joe isn’t ready for death, so he runs in the opposite direction and finds himself in a place known as The Great Before, where souls are put through an indefinite bootcamp until they can find a ‘spark’ that’ll make their lives on Earth meaningful.
It’s a lot to take in, I know, and on more than one occasion, I wondered if children would be able to follow the film down these existential corridors. I don’t think so. Probably not. But neither Joe nor the movie seems to be in any mood to wait and find out. Before we know it, Joe’s made a run for it, and found his way back home. He has just one mission: Make it to the show on time.
Unlike some of Pixar’s previous films, there is a noticeable dissonance in Soul between scenes meant for children, and those meant for their parents. Soul is, after all, a cartoon movie whose protagonist is a Black man going through a mid-life crisis.
Its cultural relevance, however, cannot be understated. As avant-garde as most of it is, a solid third of the movie is set in a very recognisable New York City. And in this very recognisable New York City, we see richly detailed crowds of multi-ethnic people — walking the streets, crammed in subway trains, queuing up outside clubs. On one blink-and-miss occasion, I spotted a Muslim shop-owner, with a beard and a skull cap. And all I could think was, “This is all deliberate. You saw it because someone wanted you to see it.”
Soul could very easily have ended up like one of those pandering Disney movies like Aladdin and Mulan, but it has a real respect for jazz music, and what it represents to the community that created it. “It’s one of our greatest contributions,” Joe’s father, the man who introduced him to jazz, tells him in one of those classic Pixar flashback sequences. You know, like the one at the end of Ratatouille.
There’s an attempt to hit peak-Pixar emotion towards the end, which doesn’t quite reach the timbre of something like Toy Story 3 or Inside Out. But it has soul to spare. It’s available in India on Disney+ Hotstar, starting Christmas day.