This post has been delayed because, well honestly, I was watching the swim meet at the Olympics. Now that it’s over, it’s time to get back to blogging about movies. Two weeks ago I said I’d look at Black Widow this weekend, but I changed my mind for a couple of reasons. The big one being that I don’t feel like spending $30 just to watch it. So instead, I’m looking at Pixar’s Soul.
Soul was originally planned as a theatrical release in November of 2020, but due to 2020 being 2020, it released direct to streaming on December 25th, free to all Disney + subscribers from the start. It only released theatrically in a handful of countries that don’t have streaming. They include Russia, Singapore, China and the Philippines. That makes Soul a Disney+ original.
Although the movie was watched a lot, with research firm Screen Engine reported that 13% of the movie’s viewers subscribed to Disney+ mostly to watch Soul, it sadly means the movie never had a chance to earn a profit. It earned $119 million on a $150 million budget, with most of its money coming from China ($57.7 million), Russia ($15.6 million), South Korea ($14.8 million) and Taiwan ($6.4 million).
The general reception for the movie is very good. Deadline Hollywood called Soul “A concrete return to the Pixar of old”, with a “deeply emotional core.” IndieWire called the movie a “captivating journey … it uses a traditional framework to veer off in many unexpected directions, so that even the inevitable end point feels just right.” Not all reviews were positive, with Screen Rant calling the film’s message “messy and only made muddier by the questions the movie sets up then fails to answer.”
Soul won the Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, with a nomination for Best Sound, and it received the equivalent awards and nominations at BAFTA. At the Annie Awards, it won 7 out of 10 nominations, including Best Animated Feature, Best Music, Best Writing and Best Character Design. Jamie Fox won several awards for his performance as the movie’s lead character, Joe Gardner, as did Tina Fey for her role as 22.
Directed by Pixar veteran Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out, Monsters, Inc.), development for Soul began in January of 2016. He sought a new creative direction, the result of a bit of a midlife crisis. He pondered the origins of human personalities and the concept of determinism. He pitched an idea “set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities.” The film was announced in June of 2018, and that he’d complete the film even though he was appointed as Chief Creative Officer after John Lasseter’s departure.
Docter worked with co-writer Mike Jones on the story concept for two years. They settled on the main character being a jazz musician, instead of the original plan of a scientist, because they wanted a “profession the audience could root for.” They soon chose afterwards that the main character would be black, because of how closely tied the black community is with the history of jazz music. Kemp Powers was brought in to further help with the writing, and based several elements of the main character’s journey on his own life. Pixar also created an internal community composed of black employees, as well as several consultants including Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne and Jon Batiste.
Jones in particular came up with the idea of bringing in a therapy cat, which Joe’s soul would land inside at one point in the movie. Docter and Powers loved the idea, feeling that it provided a much needed way for Joe to “be able to look at his own life from a different perspective.”
It’s said that the filmmakers were undecided on the movie’s ending right up until the last screening. Some versions had Joe passing to the Great Beyond, some had him returning to Earth one year later, or even staying in the Great Beyond as a mentor. Some scenes also included 22 being born on Earth, and even reuniting with Joe in New York. Docter eventually decided that removing those scenes would make the movie “much more powerful to give the decision to the audience”.
Fox was Pixar’s top choice from the start, thanks to his comedic skills, dramatic chops and his own musical background. He quickly related to the character’s passion for music, saying that early in his career, music was “all I wanted to do … but comedy took off first.” He also previously won an Oscar for portraying Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray. Fey not only voiced 22, but also contributed to the screenplay, writing some of her lines.
Interestingly enough, while this movie features John Ratzenberger’s likeness, it’s actually the first Pixar feature to not include his voice.
Anyway, Soul is easily the best movie I’ve watched this month for this blog. The main focus is on Joe, who starts the movie off as a substitute music teacher who dreams of being a successful musician. He’s unsatisfied with his life, feeling as if he hasn’t accomplished anything. When he lands a gig with a big name jazz musician, he’s over the moon … until he falls into an open sewer while being distracted by a phone call. His soul departs his comatose body, but instead of passing to The Great Beyond, he falls into the newborn soul area. He meets 22, a rebellious soul who doesn’t want to go to Earth. Together, they go on a journey where not only does Joe learn to appreciate what he has, but 22 learns what it’s like to be alive.
To say much else would be to spoil the movie’s journey. Although there’s nothing overly surprising about their journey together, the real experience is seeing them learn and grow together. The jazz music angle ties in beautifully with the movie’s themes. And of course as always, it’s a great looking film. Pixar never disappoints when it comes to animation quality.
Soul is an easy recommendation for those who like Pixar’s more dramatic movies in general. It’s still entertaining, but it’s more on the dramatic side by Pixar standards. Throw in a fantastic jazz-inspired soundtrack, strong vocal performances all-round, and some neat concepts, and you’ve got another strong entry in Pixar’s library. It’s not their best movie, but it is still very good.
Next week I’ll be kicking off classic musical theme month, most likely starting off with Sound of Music. I haven’t yet decided what else I’ll be watching or when, but there won’t be anything that released after the year 1979.