Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Edition. Soul

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Soul

Year: 2020

Budget:  $150 million

Box office: $57.4 million 1

Plot: Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher from New York City, dreams of a career in jazz, even though his mother Libba objects to it, fearing for his financial security. One day, Joe learns of an opening in the band of jazz legend Dorothea Williams and auditions for it. Impressed with Joe’s piano playing, Dorothea offers him a chance to perform later that night. As Joe happily heads off to prepare for the show, he falls down a manhole.

Joe finds himself as a soul heading into the “Great Beyond”. Unwilling to die before his big break, he tries to escape but ends up in the “Great Before”, where soul counselors—all named Jerry—prepare unborn souls for life. Each soul has a badge which, once filled out with traits, grants passage to Earth. Mistaken for an instructor, Joe is assigned to train 22, a cynical soul who has remained in the Great Before for millennia and sees no point in living on Earth. She needs to find her “spark” to complete her badge and agrees to give it to Joe so that he can return home. Joe tries to assist 22 in finding a passion, but the attempts prove futile. With no other options, they head for “the zone”, an area people enter when their passion sets them into a euphoric trance; it also houses the lost souls who become obsessed and broken. Moonwind, the captain of a psychedelic galleon bearing a troupe of “mystics without borders”, helps rescue the lost souls. The mystics agree to help Joe, who has been in a coma since his fall.

Joe excitedly hops back to Earth but accidentally brings 22 along, resulting in 22 entering his body and Joe ending up in a therapy cat. Initially frightened, 22 settles into Joe’s body and finds great enjoyment in the little things in life. She holds deep and poignant conversations with Connie, a student who planned to quit the school band but who changes her mind after losing herself in a passionate, impromptu trombone solo; Dez, who wanted to become a veterinarian but is now enjoying his career as a barber; and Libba, who reconciles with Joe and finally accepts her son’s passion for music. Meanwhile, Terry, an accountant designated to counting souls headed to the Great Beyond, goes to Earth to look for the missing Joe.

Joe and 22 find Moonwind (at his day-job as a sign twirler) to help restore Joe to his body, but 22 experiences an epiphany and decides she must find her purpose on Earth. She flees with Joe tailing behind, but Terry catches up and brings both back to the Great Before. 22 realizes that her badge has been filled out, yet Joe insists that it was the result of his experiences and tastes. 22 angrily tosses the badge at him and disappears into the zone. Joe later learns that instead of a life’s purpose, a spark simply means that a soul is ready to live.

Joe heads back to Earth and has a successful performance with the Dorothea Quartet. The experience, however, is not as fulfilling as Joe expected; worse, he might have to repeat the same routine night after night. Realizing his senseless and selfish ways with 22, he decides to return the badge. Inspired by the objects she collected while in his body, Joe plays the piano to enter the zone and look for 22, who has become a lost soul. Using a small maple seed 22 had kept, Joe convinces her that she is ready to live, returning her to normal. With her badge back, 22 finally enters Earth, with Joe accompanying her for as long as he can.

As he prepares to head into the Great Beyond, Joe is stopped by a Jerry, who thanks him for inspiring them and offers him another chance at life. Joe accepts and returns to his body on Earth, now ready to live and appreciate every moment of his life.

Animation: Soul is Pixar’s first film to feature an African-American protagonist. Pixar was mindful of the history of racist imagery in animation, and set out to create characters who were recognizably black while avoiding the stereotypes in old cartoons. Acknowledging this effort, Docter stated that “There’s a long and painful history of caricatured racist design tropes that were used to mock African-Americans.” According to Powers, the animators used lighting as a way to highlight the ethnic diversity in the living world. Pixar sought to capture the fine details of these black characters, including the textures of black hair and the way light plays on various tones of black skin.  Animators used footage of several music performers, including jazz composer Jon Batiste, performing as reference for the film’s musical sequences. By capturing MIDI data from the sessions, animators were able to retrace the exact key being played on the piano with each note and create the performances authentically.

Background: Pete Docter began developing Soul in January 2016. He pitched an idea “set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities”. According to Docter, once they settled on the main character being a jazz musician, the filmmakers chose to make the character African-American, as they felt it made sense due to how closely African-Americans have been tied to jazz history. Kemp Powers originally joined as co-writer early in development to help write the character of Joe, and was initially given a 12-week contract, which was then extended. He was subsequently promoted to co-director after his extensive contributions to the film, making him Pixar’s first African-American co-director. 

Powers based several elements of Joe on his personal life, as the character’s story shared several elements with Powers’ own, but also wanted him to “transcend [his] own experience” in order to make the character more accessible. Powers also placed additional emphasis on authentically depicting the black community as well as Joe’s relationships with them. In order to portray accurately African-American culture within the film, Pixar created an internal culture trust composed of black Pixar employees, and hired several consultants, among whom were musicians Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, Quincy Jones and Jon Batiste, educator Johnnetta Cole, and stars Questlove and Daveed Diggs. The filmmakers worked closely with them through the film’s development.

Pizza Planet Truck: The Pizza Planet Truck is parked in “The Hall of Everything” along with a lot of items from past Pixar movies. Pixar loves to pull items from their digital archive to use in movies and in this single shot, you’ll also see Willy’s Butte from Cars, the Axiom from WALL-E, the ferris wheel from Toy Story 4, an Aztec building from Coco and The Spirit of Adventure from Up.

A113: There’s a blank street sign towards the right side of the screen and only one post has any characters, A113.

Cast: Rachel House returns as Terry.

Jamie Foxx 2as Joe Gardner. He is best known for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, for which he won the Academy Award, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Award, Critics’ Choice Movie Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. In 1991, Foxx joined the cast as a featured player in the sketch comedy show In Living Color until the show’s end in 1994. Following this success, Foxx was given his own television sitcom The Jamie Foxx Show, in which he starred, co-created and produced. Other roles include  Collateral, Jarhead, Dreamgirls, Miami Vice, Django Unchained,  The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Annie, Baby Driver, and Just Mercy. Foxx is also a Grammy Award-winning musician, Tina Fey as 22. She is best known for her work on Saturday Night Live and for creating the comedy series 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey is also known for her work in film, including Mean Girls, Baby Mama, Date Night, Megamind, Muppets Most Wanted, Sisters, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Wine Country.

Graham Norton3 as Moonwind. He is a five-time BAFTA TV Award winner for his comedy chat show The Graham Norton Show. In addition to hosting and presenting numerous television programs, he has appeared in the films Stargay, Another Gay Movie, I Could Never Be Your Woman, and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. Alice Braga as Jerry. She has appeared in several Brazilian films, most notably starring as Angélica in the highly acclaimed City of God, as Karinna in Lower City, and as Dolores in Only God Knows. Other roles include I Am Legend, Repo Men, Predators, The Rite, Elysium, and The Shack. She portrays Teresa Mendoza in Queen of the South.

 Richard Ayoade as Jerry. He is best known for his role as Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd, for which he won the 2014 BAFTA for Best Male Comedy Performance. He has provided his voice to a number of animated projects, including the films The Boxtrolls, Early Man, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and the television shows Strange Hill High  and Apple & Onion. Phylicia Rashad as Libba Gardner. She is known for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, which earned her Emmy Award nominations in 1985 and 1986. In 2004, Rashad became the first black actress to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, which she won for her role in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Her other Broadway credits include Into the Woods, Jelly’s Last Jam, Gem of the Ocean, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She won a NAACP Image Award when she reprised her A Raisin in the Sun role in the 2008 television adaptation. She has also appeared in the films For Colored Girls, Good Deeds, Creed, and Creed II.

Donnell Rawlings as Dez. He is best known as a cast member on the Comedy Central sketch comedy TV series Chappelle’s Show and the HBO drama The Wire. Questlove4 as Lamont “Curley” Baker. He is the drummer and joint frontman (with Black Thought) for the hip hop band the Roots. The Roots have been serving as the in-house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon since February 17, 2014. He has produced numerous albums including the cast album of Hamilton.

Angela Bassett as Dorothea Williams. She is known for her performance as Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical. Bassett has additionally portrayed real life figures Betty Shabazz in both Malcolm X and Panther, Katherine Jackson in The Jacksons: An American Dream, Voletta Wallace in Notorious and Coretta Scott King in Betty & Coretta. Her other notable film roles include Reva Styles in Boyz n the Hood, Bernie Harris in Waiting to Exhale, Rachel Constantine in Contact, Lynne Jacobs in Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen, and Queen Ramonda in Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame. Other films include The Score, Akeelah and the Bee, Meet the Browns, Jumping the Broom, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Music of the Heart. Bassett’s performance as Rosa Parks in The Rosa Parks Story was honored with her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination. In 2018, Bassett began producing and starring in the Fox first responder drama series 9-1-1, playing LAPD patrol sergeant Athena Grant. Daveed Diggs as Paul. He is the vocalist of the experimental hip hop group Clipping, and in 2015, he originated the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the musical Hamilton, for which he won both a Grammy Award and Tony Award. Since leaving Hamilton, he played a recurring role in the television series Black-ish and co-starred in the films Wonder and Velvet Buzzsaw. Diggs also wrote, produced, and starred in the 2018 film Blindspotting, which earned him a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead. As of 2020, he stars in the television adaptation of Snowpiercer.

Where in the World is John Ratzenburger?  Docter had reportedly said that Ratzenberger makes a “cameo” in the film, despite not being credited in the main cast or additional voices. Co-director Kemp Powers later confirmed that Ratzenberger’s appearance was not a voice role as per usual, but instead a tribute as a non-speaking background character in the film that was animated in his likeness. Thus, despite Ratzenberger’s likeness being represented in the film, Soul is officially the first Pixar film to not feature his voice or personal involvement.

Music and Songs: The film’s producers consulted various jazz musicians including Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington, and animated its musical sequences using the sessions of musician Jon Batiste as reference. Apart from Batiste’s original jazz compositions, musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also composed the film’s score.

Critical Reception:

  • Joe Utichi of Deadline Hollywood called the film “a concrete return to the Pixar of old, full of grand ideas and original execution, and a statement of intent for Docter’s steering of the Pixar ship away from endless sequels and back to inventive originals. It remains a film with a deeply emotional core that feels like it comes from a place of genuine curiosity. In short, it has soul.”
  • Kaleem Aftab of IndieWire gave the film an A–, calling it a “captivating journey” and writing “Like some of the best jazz compositions, it uses a traditional framework to veer off in many unexpected directions, so that even the inevitable end point feels just right.”
  •  A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that Soul is “a small, delicate movie that doesn’t hit every note perfectly, but its combination of skill, feeling and inspiration is summed up in the title”.
  • In his review for Variety, Peter Debruge felt the film’s message was too adult for child audiences, but conclusively decided it “all blends together beautifully, a marriage of Pixar’s square, safe, feel-good sensibility with what could be described as the “real world” — and one that, much as Inside Out anthropomorphized the mind, will leave audiences young and old imagining their own souls as glowing idiosyncratic cartoon characters.”
  • Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter called the film “peak Pixar” and “miles ahead and sublime in every sense”, and praised the soundtrack.
  • Jason Solomons of TheWrap said the film “aims admirably high, yet ultimately can’t quite fulfill the scale of its ambitions” but “it pops with colorful visuals and gentle wisdom while the story clips along despite the dizzying height of the concept.”
  •  Peter Travers, reviewing for ABC News, praised the visuals as “breathtaking” and the musical score as “sublime” crediting Jon Batiste for “those jazz improvs, and to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who scored the electronic bleeps of the spiritual realm.”
  • Reviews were not uniformly positive. Adonis Fryer of the Ohio student newspaper The Post Athens concluded that “beautiful animation, strong voice acting, charming writing and easy-to-digest existential philosophy make Soul a compelling watch but does not make up for Disney’s inability to truly center a black hero with agency.”
  • Molly Freeman of ScreenRant acknowledged the film’s “message about the meaning of life and finding purpose, but it’s messy and only made muddier by the questions the movie sets up then fails to answer. The result is Soul loses much of its emotional impact, with the third act playing out more like a rush to the finish line of the story without giving as much weight to the themes and emotional throughline of the film.”
  • Charles Pulliam-Moore of Gizmodo stated that the film “comes across less like an earnest and casual celebration of everyday Blackness, and more like a twee depiction of it that’s meant for white audiences’ consumption.”

Legacy: Soul is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American protagonist. It became the first feature-length film from Pixar not to be given a wide theatrical release and the first to be billed as a Disney+ original film.

My take: The sheer amount of detail in the city scenes are fantastic. Great cast. The only thing I didn’t care for was the suggestion that teaching is somehow a fallback choice or consolation prize.

Available on Disney +?: Yes, in fact it’s the only way to view it

Next Week: For our final entry in this series we are going to review Saving Mr. Banks