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Soul (2020 film)

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Soul
Soul Poster.jpeg
Official release poster
Directed byPete Docter
Produced byDana Murray
Written by
Starring
Music by
Cinematography
  • Matt Aspbury
  • Ian Megibben
Edited byKevin Nolting
Production
companies
Distributed byWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release date
  • October 11, 2020 (2020-10-11) (BFI)
  • December 25, 2020 (2020-12-25) (United States)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$150 million+[1]
Box office$57.4 million[2]

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. Originally intended to be a theatrical release in the United States, the film was released to stream on Disney+ on December 25, 2020 and was theatrically released 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 film. The film received highly positive reviews from critics with praise for its animation, story, voice acting, and music.

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",[3] 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.

Voice cast

Additionally, Daveed Diggs plays Paul, Joe's neighborhood frenemy;[4][9][10] Cora Champommier plays Connie, one of Joe's middle school band students; Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff play the other soul counselors named Jerry;[6][8] Margo Hall and Rhodessa Jones play Melba and Lulu, Libba's co-workers;[6] June Squibb plays Gerel, a soul who meets Joe before going to the Great Beyond;[8] and Esther Chae plays Miho, a bassist in Williams' band.[13] Cody Chesnutt provides his vocals, from his song "Parting Ways", as a street singer with a guitar.[14]

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 Arrayo and Dreamerwind.[6]

Production

Development

Pete Docter began developing Soul in January 2016, as he sought new creative directions after winning his second Academy Award (for Inside Out). Producer Dana 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".[15][16][17] Docter pondered the origins of human personalities as well as the concept of determinism. In his first meeting with co-writer Mike Jones, Docter pitched an idea "set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities".[15]

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.[18] In June 2019, Pixar formally announced the new film, titled Soul, with Docter directing and Murray producing.[19] A synopsis released on Twitter described the film as a cosmic journey through New York City.[20]

Writing

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'?"[21]

Docter and Jones worked on the development of the main character for about two years.[15] 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.[22][23] 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.[15] He was subsequently promoted to co-director after his extensive contributions to the film, making him Pixar's first African-American co-director.[23] 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.[22] Powers also placed additional emphasis on authentically depicting the black community as well as Joe's relationships with them.[24] 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.[22][24]

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.[25]

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. A number of 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.[25]

Casting

In August 2019, Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad and Daveed Diggs were announced as starring in the film.[4][9] In March 2020, Angela Bassett announced she was in the cast.[12] 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.[7][5][8]

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.[26] 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."[27] Foxx had previously won an Oscar playing a musician, in the role of Ray Charles in the 2004 film Ray.[28] 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.[28][29] Fey, in addition to voicing 22, also contributed to the screenplay, having helped to write her character's lines.[21] She considered the film, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a "helpful reminder that [life] isn't defined by achievement or attainment".[28]

Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger was also reported by some news outlets to be a part of the cast.[30] 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.[31] Docter had reportedly said that Ratzenberger makes a "cameo" in the film,[32] 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.[33] 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.

Animation

Soul is Pixar's first film to feature an African-American protagonist.[34] 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."[15] According to Powers, the animators used lighting as a way to highlight the ethnic diversity in the living world.[35] 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.[15] Cinematographer Bradford Young worked as a lighting consultant on the film.[35]

Animators used footage of several music performers, including jazz composer Jon Batiste, performing as reference for the film's musical sequences.[35] 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.[35][36] According to Docter, the animators assigned to specific musical instruments often either had experience playing them or a great appreciation for them.[36]

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.[21] At the same time, they did not want the souls to look overly similar to ghosts, and adjusted their color palette accordingly.[37] 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".[21] According to Murray, several artists helped create the souls' designs by giving their suggestions and opinions on how they should look.[38] 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.[39] 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.[37]

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."[40] According to Docter, the aim of the design was to "make a grand statement about learning and knowledge."[41] The personality pavilions were designed to be "abstract-looking shapes" as a literal interpretation of the abstract ideas they represent.[40] 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.[37]

Music

American musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails composed a new-age 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.[42][43] Batiste sought to create what he referred to as "user-friendly jazz", which would feel "authentic" and still be appreciated by a general audience.[22][44] 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.[45]

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.[46][47] "It's All Right", the end-credits song performed as a duet between Batiste and British soul singer Celeste and originally recorded by The Impressions, was also released as a non-album single alongside the three albums.[48][49]

Release

Soul was originally scheduled for theatrical release in the United States on June 19, 2020,[50] 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.[51] On June 3, 2020, Soul was selected as part of the line-up for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival.[52] 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.[53][54]

On September 15, 2020, Variety reported that Disney was considering the cancellation of the film's theatrical release replacing it with a premiere of the film on Disney+, though a Disney insider disputed the claim.[55][56] 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.[57] On September 23, amid a shuffle of release date changes from Disney, the studio announced that the film will stay theatrical on November 20.[58] However, on October 8, 2020, Disney announced that the film's theatrical release had been cancelled altogether, and 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.[59] This includes China,[60] the Philippines (in areas under MGCQ)[61] and Singapore.[62] Unlike Mulan, the film was not released as a "premiere access" release, and was free to all subscribers.[63]

A new 2D animated short film from Pixar's "SparkShorts" titled Burrow was initially announced to appear before the film had it premiered theatrically.[64] On October 9, 2020, it was announced the short would also premiere on Disney+.[65] 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 finished production on schedule during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was released as an "extra" on Disney+ alongside the film's debut.[66][67]

On December 16, 2020, the first three episodes of the podcast Soul Stories hosted by co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers was 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.[68]

Audience viewership

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.[69]

Reception

Box office

In its opening weekend, Soul grossed $7.6 million from ten countries, including $5.5 million from China.[70] The top grossing countries were China ($25.8 million), Taiwan ($2.3 million) and Vietnam ($793,000).[71]

Critical response

Critical response to Soul has been "highly positive", and it has been described as one of Pixar's finest and "most ambitiously existential" films.[72][73] On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 96% based on 289 reviews, with an average score of 8.30/10. The site's critics consensus states, "A film as beautiful to contemplate as it is to behold, Soul proves Pixar's power to deliver outstanding all-ages entertainment remains undimmed."[74] According to Metacritic, which compiled 55 reviews and calculated an average score of 83 out of 100, the film received "universal acclaim".[75]

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."[76] 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."[77] 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".[78] 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."[79]

Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter called the film "peak Pixar" and "miles ahead and sublime in every sense", and praised the soundtrack.[6] 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."[80] 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."[81]

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."[82] 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."[83] 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."[84]

Accolades

Award nominations for Soul
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Alliance of Women Film Journalists January 4, 2021 Best Animated Feature Film Soul Won [85]
Best Animated Female Tina Fey Won
Chicago Film Critics Association December 21, 2020 Best Animated Film Soul Nominated [86]
Best Original Screenplay Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers Nominated
Best Original Score Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste Won
Critics' Choice Super Awards January 10, 2021 Best Animated Movie Soul Won [87]
Best Voice Actor in an Animated Movie Jamie Foxx Won
Best Voice Actress in an Animated Movie Tina Fey Won
Florida Film Critics Circle December 21, 2020 Best Original Screenplay Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers Nominated [88]
Best Score Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste Won
Best Animated Film Soul Won
Hollywood Music in Media Awards January 27, 2021 Best Original Score - Animated Film Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste Pending [89]
Outstanding Music Supervision - Animated Film Tom MacDougall Pending
Best Soundtrack Album Soul: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Pending
Houston Film Critics Society Awards January 18, 2021 Best Picture Soul Nominated [90]
Best Animated Feature Film Soul Won
Best Original Score Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards December 20, 2020 Best Animated Film Soul Runner-up [91]
Best Music Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Won
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards January 11, 2021 Best Animated Film Soul Nominated [92]
St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association Awards January 17, 2021 Best Music Score Won [93]
Best Animated Film Won
London Critics Circle Film Awards February 7, 2021 Technical Achievement Award Pete Doctor Pending [94]

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External links