A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
We all knew it was only a matter of time for Pixar to give souls to, well, souls. After all, they’ve given one to toys, cars, fish, robots and to actual feelings.
After winning his second Academy Award for Inside Out in 2016, director Pete Docter was inspired to continue his exploration of the human condition, pitching an idea “set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities”.
Docter and co-writer Mike Jones then decided to have the main character be a jazz musician, because they wanted a “profession the audience could root for”. Because of the close ties between the history of jazz and African-Americans, it was only logical for the protagonist, Joe Gardner, to be an African American.
Therefore, African-American Kemp Powers was brought in as a third writer but was quickly promoted to co-director due to his considerable contributions, thus making Soul the first Pixar film to have an African-American director and protagonist.
With Pixar working on the film for the next several years, the most complicated aspects proved to be the creation of The Great Beyond and the souls who inhabit it as they did not wish to portray any particular religious belief as well as designing the African American characters, wanting to be mindful of the history of racist imagery in animation, looking to avoid stereotypes while still remaining recognizably black.
During the 2019 D23 Expo, a release date of June 19th, 2020 was announced and it was revealed that Academy Award Winners (and Nine Inch Nails bandmates) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, along with Jazz extraordinaire Jon Batiste would be in charge of the music.
In early 2020, the team faced a major complication when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of every non-essential workplace, which included the offices of Pixar Animation studios. With over 50% of the movie done, every team had to complete the other half while working at home.
This also meant that, like the sad story we saw time and again in 2020 (and not for the last time either), it’s release in theaters was canceled in favor of one on Disney Plus on Christmas Day except for countries where theaters remained opened. The good news was that unlike with Mulan, Soul is “free” for all subscribers of the streaming platform.
Existentialism… For Kids!
One of Pixar’s biggest strengths is the exploration of complex concepts and ideas through the lens of fun, beautiful animation and that has never been more evident than it is in Soul.
Death and existentialism are surely at the bottom of the list for “suitable topics in a children’s movie” yet the whole team make it look so easy to do something this dense while still remaining educational and fun enough for kids to understand as well as entertaining – and identifiable – for adults.
Funny, inspiring, heartbreaking and hopeful, it reminds us at every turn why Pixar is the respected and brilliant film studio it is. Ultimately, Pixar’s newest work is also their most ambitious, looking to celebrate life through the eyes of death as well as explore the importance of mentors – whether they come in the form of a person or inspiration from another source. And even if the lesson of “seize the day” is nothing new in movies, few succeed in transmitting that as effectively as Soul.
The Great Soundtrack
Although this is something that will be discussed in a little more detail below, the soundtrack provided by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste is such an integral (and brilliantly realized) part of the movie that it deserves to be singled out within this list.
As jazz is such a big element of Joe’s life, the filmmakers and composers focused as much on the animation as it did on the music and are able to turn it into another character, even proving to be essential to the emotional success of the movie.
So if you find yourself with some tears in your eyes at any moment, it might just be the result of the great work done by Reznor, Ross and Batiste.
Pixar’s animation is among the best in the business thanks to their brilliant team of animators but its design is what really separates it from their past films. When we spend time in the world of the living each frame handles a level of realism, subtlety and attention to detail that’s come to be expected while The Great Before and The Great Beyond are full of creative and eye popping visuals.
From the line drawn characters of Jerry, Terry and 22 to the stairs which lead to The Great Beyond, every set and character within the afterlife are some of the studios most distinct and unique, successfully visualizing a world that is suitable and colorful for kids yet full of small details and beautiful imagery which adults will be able to enjoy.
Being a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails, I have to admit I entered Soul with a bit of bias but the score by Reznor and Ross (whose music appears in The Great Beyond segments) does not disappoint with a playful, hypnotic and cheerful sound while still maintaining a certain ominous quality for the afterlife.
As for Batiste – who, expectedly, did the Jazz performances in the world of the living -, his upbeat, chaotic and beautiful compositions also shine and prove to be a kind of beating heart for the story.
Ultimately, this unexpected mix of New-Age and Jazz music is never as overbearing as it easily could have been and ends with fascinating results. This will definitely go down as one of my favorite soundtracks of 2020 as well as one of the best in any Pixar film.
- Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Earthbound
- Jon Batiste – Born To Play
- Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Great Beyond
I’m gonna make you wish you never died.
Most people wish that, 22.
I have compassion for every soul… Except you. I don’t like you.
Don’t worry, they’re fine. You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for.
- A Dorothea Williams record previously appeared in Onward during the scene where Colt Bronco visits the Lightfoot House at the beginning of the film.
- The Hall of Everything contains the Pizza Planet Truck. Within the same shot, there’s a tiny street sign that says A113.
- How Pixar Designed The Ethereal Characters of Soul