Soul (2020 film)
|Directed by||Pete Docter|
|Produced by||Dana Murray|
|Edited by||Kevin Nolting|
|Distributed by||Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures|
|Box office||$116.2 million|
Soul is a 2020 American computer-animated fantasy comedy-drama film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, the film stars the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, and Angela Bassett. The story follows a middle school music teacher named Joe Gardner, who seeks to reunite his soul and his body after they are accidentally separated, just before his big break as a jazz musician. Soul is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American protagonist.
Docter began developing the film in 2016, working from his contemplations on the origins of human personalities and the concept of determinism. He co-wrote the screenplay with Mike Jones and Powers. 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.
Soul premiered at the London Film Festival on October 11, 2020. It was set to be theatrically released on November 20. However, the feature was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Soul being released direct-to-streaming on Disney+ on December 25, and in theaters in countries without the streaming service. 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. The film received highly positive reviews from critics, with praise for its animation, story, voice acting, and musical score. It has received multiple awards and nominations. At the 93rd Academy Awards, the film was nominated in three categories, winning Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. The film also won Best Animated Film and Best Original Score at the Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards, Critics' Choice Awards, and Annie Awards.
Joe Gardner, a pianist and middle school music teacher living in New York City, dreams of playing jazz professionally. His mother Libba insists that he make his teaching job full time, fearing for his financial security. One day, Joe learns of an opening in the band of jazz legend Dorothea Williams and auditions at a music club. Impressed with Joe's piano playing, Dorothea hires him for that night's show. As Joe heads off, his excitement distracts him, and he falls down a manhole.
Joe finds himself as a soul heading into the "Great Beyond". Unwilling to die, he tries to escape but ends up in the "Great Before", where counselors—all named Jerry—prepare unborn souls for life with the help of mentor souls. Each soul has a badge which grants passage to Earth once it is completely filled out with personality traits. Mistaken for a mentor, Joe is assigned to train 22, a cynical soul who has always lived in the Great Before and desires avoiding Earth. Discovering that Joe is in a coma at a hospital, 22 agrees to let him help find her "spark" to complete her badge and then give it to him so that he can return home. After Joe fails to find 22 a passion, they visit "the zone", a place that souls can enter when their passions create a euphoric trance, but which can also become a trap for obsessed lost souls. They come across Moonwind, the captain of a galleon bearing a troupe of hippie mystics, who help Joe locate his body on Earth.
Joe returns to Earth but accidentally carries 22, resulting in the two souls respectively entering the bodies of a therapy cat and Joe himself. They find Moonwind (at his day-job as a sign twirler), who agrees to meet them later at the jazz club to restore Joe to his body. In the meantime, 22 settles into Joe's body and enjoys small moments while interacting with Joe's peers. She holds poignant conversations with Connie, a student who wants to quit the school band but changes her mind after performing a trombone solo; Dez, who wanted to become a veterinarian but now enjoys being a barber; and Libba, who accepts Joe's passion for music. Meanwhile, Terry, an obsessive accountant who tallies souls headed to the Great Beyond, discovers that Joe is missing, and heads to Earth in order to send him to the Great Beyond and restore the count.
As the day ends, Joe and 22 rendezvous with Moonwind, but after Joe tells 22 that her experiences were not purposes, 22 flees with Joe tailing behind to find her spark. Terry notices them running into a subway station, and brings both back to the Great Before. 22 realizes her badge is filled out, yet Joe insists it was because of his traits, and that she has not truly found her spark. 22 angrily tosses the badge at him and disappears into the zone. A Jerry informs Joe that a spark is not a soul's purpose in life, but only an indication that it is ready to live. Refusing to believe this statement, Joe uses 22's badge to return to Earth.
The night's show is a success, but Joe is not as satisfied as he imagined he would be and realizes that his life has not significantly changed even after fulfilling his dream. Looking at objects that 22 collected while in his body, and recalling the moments they had enjoyed together, he sees that these experiences have given 22 her spark. By playing piano, he enters the zone with the intent to return her badge but discovers that she has become a lost soul. He chases her down and shows her a maple seed she had collected to remind her of the time she spent on Earth, restoring her to normal. Joe returns the badge and escorts 22 out of the Great Before for her journey to Earth.
As Joe prepares to enter the Great Beyond, a Jerry stops him and offers another chance at life in gratitude for finally inspiring 22 to live. Joe returns to his body on Earth and starts the next day committed to enjoying his entire life.
- Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, a passionate jazz pianist and music teacher whose soul gets separated from his body after an open manhole accident.
- Ramone Hamilton as young Joe Gardner
- Tina Fey as 22, a soul with a dim view of life, trapped in the Great Before.
- Graham Norton as Moonwind, a spiritual sign twirler.
- Rachel House as Terry, a soul counter in the Great Beyond.
- Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff as the five soul counselors in the Great Before who are all named Jerry.
- Phylicia Rashad as Libba Gardner, Joe's mother, who works as a seamstress.
- Donnell Rawlings as Dez, Joe's barber.
- Questlove as Lamont "Curley" Baker, a drummer in Dorothea Williams' band and a former student of Joe's.
- Angela Bassett as Dorothea Williams, a respected jazz musician and saxophone player.
Additionally, Daveed Diggs plays Paul, Joe's neighborhood frenemy; Cora Champommier plays Connie, one of Joe's middle school band students; Margo Hall and Rhodessa Jones play Melba and Lulu, Libba's co-workers; June Squibb plays Gerel, a soul who meets Joe before going to the Great Beyond; and Esther Chae plays Miho, a bassist in Williams' band. Cody Chesnutt provides his vocals, from his song "Parting Ways", as a street singer with a guitar.
Sakina Jaffrey, Calum Grant, Laura Mooney, Peggy Flood, Ochuwa Oghie, Jeannie Tirado, and Cathy Cavadini provide the voices of Doctor, Hedge Fund Manager, Therapy Cat Lady, Marge, Dancerstar, Principal Arroyo, and Dreamerwind.
Docter began developing Soul in January 2016, as he sought new creative directions after winning his second Academy Award (for Inside Out). Murray recalled, "Pete had this feeling, 'Is this it? Do I just do this again?' I don't know if it was a midlife crisis as much as a midlife what-am-I-doing? moment". Docter pondered the origins of human personalities as well as the concept of determinism. In his first meeting with co-writer Jones, Docter pitched an idea "set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities".
In June 2018, it was announced that Docter was planning to complete his film despite being appointed Chief Creative Officer at Pixar after John Lasseter's departure. In June 2019, Pixar formally announced the new film, titled Soul, with Docter directing and Murray producing. A synopsis released on Twitter described the film as a cosmic journey through New York City.
Pixar chose to portray the film's main character as a musician because they wanted a "profession the audience could root for", and settled for a musician after trying for a scientist, which "[didn't feel] so naturally pure as a musician's life". Docter described Soul as "an exploration of, where should your focus be? What are the things that, at the end of the day, are really going to be the important things that you look back on and go, 'I spent a worthy amount of my limited time on Earth worrying or focused on that'?"
Docter and Jones worked on the development of the main character for about two years. 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. 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.
The idea for the therapy cat and Joe landing inside its body came from Jones. Docter and Powers appreciated the idea, as it offered the filmmakers a much needed way for Joe to "be able to look at his own life from a different perspective" and appreciate it.
According to Murray, the filmmakers were undecided on the ending of the film "up until the last screening". Some versions of the ending had Joe actually passing on to the Great Beyond, while other ones had him returning to Earth a year later, or staying in the Great Before as a mentor. Several brief scenes showing 22's life on Earth after her new birth, including one of her reuniting with Joe in New York, were storyboarded. Docter considered it "much more powerful to give the decision to the audience" and ultimately discarded these scenes.
In August 2019, Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad and Daveed Diggs were announced as starring in the film. In March 2020, Angela Bassett announced she was in the cast. With the release of the film's trailer in October 2020, Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, Zenobia Shroff, Donnell Rawlings and June Squibb were also announced to be in the cast.
Foxx, who was cast to voice Joe, had been Pixar's top pick for the role as they considered his comedy skills, dramatic ability and musician background a perfect fit. He found the protagonist's passion for music relatable, stating that early in his career music was "all I wanted to do ... I grew my hair out. I had a Jheri curl like Lionel Richie... But comedy took off first." Foxx had previously won an Oscar playing a musician, in the role of Ray Charles in the 2004 film Ray. He also related to the film's "bittersweet [feeling] of losing someone but gaining a vision of joy", following the death of his sister in October 2020 at the age of 36. Fey, in addition to voicing 22, also contributed to the screenplay, having helped to write her character's lines. She considered the film, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a "helpful reminder that [life] isn't defined by achievement or attainment".
Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger was also reported by some news outlets to be a part of the cast. However, one reviewer who screened the film later noted that Ratzenberger's name is absent from the film's credits and all official cast listings, and the reviewer did not recognize his voice at any point during the film. 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, making Soul the first Pixar film to not feature his voice, and the first to have him make an appearance outside of voice roles.
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. Cinematographer Bradford Young worked as a lighting consultant on the film.
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. According to Docter, the animators assigned to specific musical instruments often either had experience playing them or a great appreciation for them.
The filmmakers animated the souls featured in the film in a "vaporous", "ethereal", and "non-physical" way, having based their designs on definitions about souls given to them by various religious and cultural representatives. At the same time, they did not want the souls to look overly similar to ghosts, and adjusted their color palette accordingly. Docter described the design as "a huge challenge", as the animators are "used to toys, cars, things that are much more substantial and easily referenced", though he felt the animation team "really put some cool stuff together that's really indicative of those words but also relatable". According to Murray, several artists helped create the souls' designs by giving their suggestions and opinions on how they should look. The designs were also inspired by early drawings made by Docter. Animators created two designs for the souls in the film; one for the new souls in "The Great Before", which animation supervisor Jude Brownbill described as "very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet", and one for mentor souls, which do feature distinctive characteristics due to having been on Earth already.
The design of soul counselors ("Jerrys") originated from line drawings made by story artist Aphton Corbin; another artist then created wire sculptures of them, upon which the final design was based. Together with the design of "Terry", they were seen by critics as a reference to Osvaldo Cavandoli's 1971 Italian animated series La Linea.
For the Great Before, the filmmakers did not want it to be based in any specific culture given its nature of universality. They sought inspiration from the architecture of 1930s–1960s world's fairs, which was "meant to inspire, to create a sense of awe and importance." According to Docter, the aim of the design was to "make a grand statement about learning and knowledge." The personality pavilions were designed to be "abstract-looking shapes" as a literal interpretation of the abstract ideas they represent. For the Great Beyond, the filmmakers went with a direct take on the concept of "going toward the light", which they believe would be immediately understood by the audience.
American musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails composed an ambient score for the metaphysical segments of the film, while American musician Jon Batiste composed a number of original jazz songs for the New York City-based segments of the film. Batiste sought to create what he referred to as "user-friendly jazz", which would feel "authentic" and still be appreciated by a general audience. Reznor and Ross were brought in on the recommendation of sound designer Ren Klyce, who had worked extensively with the duo in David Fincher films.
The score and the original songs from Soul were released in two separate vinyl-exclusive albums, while also both being compiled onto a digital album. "It's All Right", the end credits song performed by Batiste was originally recorded by The Impressions while a second cover of the song is a duet between Batiste and British soul singer Celeste which is not included in the film's soundtrack, but was released as a non-album single alongside the three albums.
Theatrical and streaming
Soul was originally scheduled for theatrical release in the United States on June 19, 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was delayed to November 20, 2020. This slot replaced Disney Animation's film Raya and the Last Dragon, whose release was delayed to March 5, 2021. On June 3, 2020, Soul was selected as part of the line-up for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival. On September 8, 2020, it was announced that the film would have its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on October 11, 2020.
On September 15, 2020, Variety reported that Disney considered cancelling the film's theatrical release and replacing it with a premiere of the film on Disney+, though a Disney insider disputed the claim. On September 17, Soul was selected as part of the line-up for the Rome Film Festival, as the opening film on October 15, 2020. On September 23, amid a shuffle of release date changes from Disney, the studio announced that the film will stay theatrical on November 20. However, on October 8, 2020, Disney announced the cancellation of the film's theatrical release, and that it would premiere exclusively on Disney+ on December 25, 2020. The film since then had a traditional theatrical release in countries without Disney+ where theaters have re-opened. This includes China, the Philippines (in areas under MGCQ), Russia, and Singapore. Unlike Mulan, the film was not released as a "premiere access" release, and was free to all subscribers.
A new 2D animated short film from Pixar's "SparkShorts" titled Burrow was initially announced to appear before the film had it premiered theatrically. On October 9, 2020, it was announced the short would also premiere on Disney+. That same day, it was announced that Soul would be the subject of a documentary chronicling Pixar's attempts to finish making the film during the pandemic. The completed featurette, entitled "Soul, Improvised", shows how the Pixar Systems team and the film's crew managed to finish production on schedule during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was released as an "extra" on Disney+ alongside the film's debut.
On December 16, 2020, the first three episodes of the podcast Soul Stories hosted by co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers were released as a Spotify exclusive. In the episodes, Powers interviews several people who worked on the film mainly about their mentors and careers, as well as some behind-the-scenes stories behind the making of the film.
Several days after its release, research firm Screen Engine reported that 13% of viewers had subscribed to Disney+ in order to watch the film, and it over-indexed among parents, particularly mothers. The company also said that Soul was already among the most-watched straight-to-streaming titles of the year, right behind fellow Disney+ release Hamilton and fellow Christmas release Wonder Woman 1984. On January 22, 2021, it was revealed that during the week of December 21, 2020, through December 27, 2020, the film gathered 1.669 billion minutes of watch time making it the number 1 streaming title that week. It was later reported by Nielsen that Wonder Woman 1984, with 2.252 billion minutes of streaming on HBO Max, had actually surpassed Soul, with 1.7 billion minutes on Disney+, in streaming numbers on Christmas weekend.
On February 2, 2021, it was announced that Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment would release Soul on Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on March 23, 2021, in the US. It was released in the UK on March 29.
In its opening weekend, Soul grossed $7.6 million from ten countries, including $5.5 million from China. By February 2021, the film had become the highest-grossing Pixar release ever in Russia ($15.6 million), Ukraine ($1.8 million), and Saudi Arabia ($5.9 million). Its largest markets at that point were China ($57.7 million), Russia, South Korea ($14.8 million), Taiwan ($6.4 million) and Saudi Arabia.
Critical response to Soul has been "highly positive", and it has been described as one of Pixar's finest and "most ambitiously existential" films. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 96% of 335 reviews of the film were positive, with an average rating of 8.3/10. The site's critics consensus reads, "A film as beautiful to contemplate as it is to behold, Soul proves Pixar's power to deliver outstanding all-ages entertainment remains undimmed." According to Metacritic, which compiled 55 reviews and calculated an average score of 83 out of 100, the film received "universal acclaim".
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." The same sentiment was shared by Kirsten Acuna from the Insider. She felt that "the studio had taken a few steps backward" in their racial sensitivity as Soul used the same trope of "turning Black characters into creatures". Molly Freeman of Screen Rant 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."
- Jazz compositions and arrangements only.
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