Pixar’s Latest Oscar-Winner for Best Animated Feature is a Soul-Stirring Cinematic Achievement

by Hassan Ilahi

People of color are rarely ever rightfully represented in Pixar’s animated films. Following its formation in the 1990’s, Pixar’s greatest strength as a studio has always been its ability to satisfy kids and adults alike. While Pixar’s films have developed a huge fan following, their lack of diversity has drawn criticism. For instance, the company recently came under fire for notable absence of ethnic characters in 2019’s Toy Story 4. Movies without racial minorities can distort children’s perspectives of the world. To be fair, one could argue that animated cartoons aren’t made to be taken seriously. However, kids are often unable to distinguish between entertainment and reality. Why, then, is inclusivity absent from animation?

Now, Pixar is back on the big-screen and soulfully showcases diversity in its latest Oscar-winning film Soul. An ambitious, heartwarming and profound cartoon, it marks the studio’s first African-American-led film. With his fourth feature, writer/director Pete Docter utilizes awe-inspiring animation to craft a meaningful meditation on mortality. Packed with extraordinary production values, spellbinding storytelling and phenomenal voice performances, it demonstrates Pixar’s strengths as an animation company. Although Soul is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. It suffers from an abrupt conclusion that lacks satisfying closure. Nonetheless, it offers heartfelt entertainment that will satisfy the studio’s fanbase.

Set in New York, Soul follows an African-American jazz musician that seeks existential meaning after an unexpected misfortune. Jamie Foxx stars in the lead role as Joe Gardner, an ambitious music teacher that dreams of becoming an illustrious jazz musician. When he lands a gig at a renowned jazz club, Joe is delighted beyond belief. However, Joe’s dreams are shattered when an accident separates his soul from body. As Joe enters a surreal afterworld, he questions the greater purpose behind life.

Writer/director Pete Docter is well-versed in themes of existential crisis. Ever since he received critical recognition with 2015’s Inside Out, Docter has transformed into a brilliant Pixar filmmaker. His previous feature “Inside Out” offered an ingenious depiction of the psychological emotions that drive a teen girl’s personality. With Soul, however, Docter has created his first racially diverse animated film. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to dramatize the experiences of African-American jazz musicians, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using stunning cinematography, Docter draws viewers into the life of an impassioned black pianist that pursues success. Docter’s decision to shoot the movie using two-dimensional animation is risky, but it works immensely. Working alongside cinematographer Matt Aspbury, Doctor expertly employs two-dimensional animation to distinguish between the spirit-lifting streets of New York and hopeless afterworld. Docter excels at immersing viewers into the world of a soul-searching African-American pianist, and his latest feature is worth watching on Disney+ for this reason alone.

If cartoons about passionate black musicians do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Soul. Accompanied by production-designer Steve Pilcher, Docter successfully utilizes authentic skin shading to showcase Pixar’s commitment towards racial representation. For instance, skin shading is employed particularly well to demonstrate black representation in the scene where Joe visits the beauty salon for a haircut. During this unforgettable sequence, skin shading represents a symbol of black empowerment which proves that Pixar has made strides towards diversity. Using this inventive technique, Docter creates a diverse world that celebrates African-American communities. Furthermore, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross & Jon Batiste’s electronic score is also worth appreciating. It gives the film an effervescent and joyous atmosphere reminiscent of La La Land. Through marvelous production values, Docter builds an immersive animated world.

Another outstanding aspect of Soul is the screenplay. Docter’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his aptitude to incorporate grown-up themes into animated cartoons using tragicomedy. In Hollywood, most animated movies avoid tackling heavy themes and are targeted solely towards kids. This often leaves no room for emotional investment and makes these films unattractive for adults. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with Soul. Docter wisely resists catering only towards kids. Instead, he strikes a delicate balance between pleasing children and adults using tragicomedy. At times, the film is hilarious and lighthearted during sequences in which Joe’s soul is trapped in a cat. However, the film is also solemn and depressing in its depiction of a musician’s reflections on life. Through blending these moods, Docter creates a compelling African-American character whom both kids and adults can identify with. Tragicomedy is a tricky technique to use deftly in animated films. However, it works immensely in this film. Using an unconventional screenplay, Docter keeps viewers engrossed in an African-American musician’s expedition towards enlightenment.

It’s hard to not praise phenomenal voice-work from the cast.

Jamie Foxx delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Joe Gardner. Foxx received acclaim for his Oscar-winning turn as a distinguished black musician in 2004’s Ray. With Soul, however, he takes on his first vocal role in animation. It’s not easy to lend voice-work to a reflective musician that seeks meaning in life. However, Foxx pulls if off effortlessly. With his iconic voice, he captures the ambition, passion and yearning of a jazz pianist that experiences an epiphany when his life doesn’t go according to plan. It’s a breakthrough performance from one of America’s best black actors.

The supporting cast is superb and also praiseworthy. Tina Fey is terrific and builds compassion for a soul whose pessimistic outlook on life changes once she experiences Earth. Graham Norton is sensational and uses his ostentatious talk show persona to evoke humor as a goofy mystic. And lastly, it’s hard to not mention Rachel House. As the mischievous antagonist, she brings menace to the movie.

The final aspect of Soul that merits appreciation is the film’s message. Despite being a children’s animated cartoon, the film’s message has the power to resonate with everyone. The film tackles relatable topics such as mortality, purpose and spirituality that will connect with audiences in the post-pandemic time. As someone that has recently questioned his own life purpose, I identified with Joe’s existential crisis. In this regard, Soul is one of those rare cartoons with wide-ranging appeal.

Despite its broad appeal, however, its unfortunate that Soul doesn’t quite possess the heart and soul of Pixar’s greatest films. Docter’s decision to conclude the movie with deus ex machina is innovative and unexpected, but it doesn’t entirely work. It’s an abrupt finale that overwhelms viewers with its life-always-gives-second-chances lesson. Instead of bringing the movie to a satisfying resolution, it simply sparks questions. Whereas this sentimental conclusion worked for a movie like Inside Out, it clashes with the realistic tone of this film. Due to its problematic conclusion, “Soul” isn’t nearly on par with Pixar’s classics.

Nevertheless, fans of Pixar’s films will definitely enjoy Soul and so will movie-goers seeking family-friendly entertainment. An awe-inspiring animated achievement, it proves that there’s room for racial representation in animation. Like a balm for the soul, one hopes it will inspire kids from black communities to chase dreams they may have abandoned amidst the pandemic today.

Hassan’s Grade:  A