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SYFY WIRE reviews

Critics say the first 40 minutes of Pixar's 'Soul' pack a 'bizarre' and 'emotional punch'

By Josh Weiss
Soul Pixar

Soul will make history as the first major Pixar project to skip theaters for a streaming debut. The existential film is slated to debut on Disney+ Christmas Day (Friday, Dec. 25) as a direct result of theater shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While most of us have to wait the two and a half months to check out the animated feature (co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers), there are some initial reactions to the movie's first 40 minutes, which certain outlets got to view last month. Judging by some of the takes you're about to read, it sounds like Pixar has another profound and groundbreaking achievement on its hands that makes Inside Out (also helmed by Docter) look like a training exercise by comparison. What else would you expect from a story that asks big questions like: "Where do we come from before we're born?" and "Where do we go when we die?"

"Soul is not only one of the more mature and bizarre stories that Pixar has told, but it has some truly enchanting animation, both in the realism of the human world and in the imaginative and unusual beauty of the soul world known as The Great Before," writes Ethan Anderton of /FILM. Anderton went on to praise the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which he describes as "unlike any music ever featured in a Pixar film. The sounds are just as otherworldly as the sights, creating a vibe that truly makes The Great Before feel even more metaphysical and captivating. On top of that, the jazz music in Soul is exquisite too."

Jamie Foxx (Project Power) leads the voice cast as Joe Gardner, a New York music teacher with big dreams of becoming a professional jazz musician. When he accidentally falls into an open manhole, his soul is sent to The Great Before, another plane of existence where souls are imbued with personality before they are sent to bodies on Earth. There Joe meets 22 (voiced by Tina Fey, she's a jaded soul that doesn't really want to inhabit a body) and tries to return to the mortal world. At the same time, he's got to help 22 find her "spark," something that will allow her to leave The Great Before.

"Soul's first act packs an emotional punch too, illustrating Joe's dedication to getting back to Earth. It makes him a relatable character and easy to root for," says Chris Agar of ScreenRant. "The world-building is very impressive. The Great Before is a lush, open environment where souls can grow into their personalities. There's the Hall of You (a museum of key moments from the mentor's life) and the Hall of Everything where the souls look to find their spark."

Soul Pixar

Nick Romano at Entertainment Weekly praises the film's realistic animation, writing that "the results are truly dazzling to behold. While Soul maintains a signature Pixar style of animation, it also experiments with a different visual vocabulary. One striking sequence sees Joe's soul falling off the staircase to the Great Beyond as the animation breaks from its previously established aesthetic and becomes a more 2D black-and-white experience."

Collider's Drew Taylor characterizes the plot as "a pretty classic Pixar set-up — a mismatched comedy duo sent on a seemingly impossible task, who gain a better understanding of each other along the way." However, Taylor adds that Disney's publicity has barely scratched the surface of the movie's ambition. "What hasn’t been shared in the marketing materials, thus far, is the complexity of the characterizations and the visual splendor of the worlds director Pete Docter and his collaborators have created," Taylor adds. "Soul both fits right at home with the rest of the Pixar oeuvre and stands apart brilliantly, boldly, from every other movie the studio has ever produced. It is an intoxicating mixture."

After watching the first 40 minutes, Bill Desowitz of IndieWire writes that Inside Out "was just a tune-up for Soul in exploring life’s big issues with a bold aesthetic: the tactile, weathered naturalism of New York contrasts sharply with the soft, de-saturated Great Before, and the souls are ephemeral, Aerogel-like creatures enhanced by edge-defining line work around the eyes and mouth." Given "its cultural relevance and the dearth of high-profile releases because of COVID," Desowitz adds, Soul is definitely a major contender for Oscar gold.

Pixar Soul

The Hollywood Reporter's Leslie Felperin, who got to see the full movie, says the following:

"Volumes could be written about the film's varied textures and how they map out different realms and moods. At the same time, light — an entity Pixar has always excelled at mimicking and modeling in its animation going back to their logo-inspiring short Luxo Jr. — feels intensely palpable here, from the almost minute photon in the pointillist fields of color in the Great Beyond to the more photorealistic treatment of the New York world."

Joe Utichi of Deadline also got to see the entire feature and compares it to "the work of Studio Ghibli ... the movie draws humor and invention in abstraction which feels downright subversive for family animation."

Writing for Empire, Alex Godfrey concludes that "while not quite offering the emotional gut-punch it promises, [Soul's] many ideas never completely cohering, Soul is nevertheless a gorgeous and tender existential trip. It’s full of surprises."

Soul co-stars Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, and Angela Bassett. Docter (also the director Monsters, Inc. and Up) penned the screenplay with Powers (One Night in Miami) and Mike Jones (a senior story and creative artist at Pixar).