“Soul” — Pixar’s dreamy animated fable about the meaning of life, released in the middle of a deadly pandemic — on Sunday took home the Oscar for best animated film, the latest in a long line of successes for the Disney subsidiary.
The film is the 23rd feature-length movie and the latest original story from Pixar, home to the massively popular “Toy Story” franchise, as well as one-off award-winning films like “Up” and “Inside Out.”
It is also the first from the animation powerhouse to feature a main character who is African-American.
“This film started as a love letter to jazz. But we had no idea how much jazz would teach us about life,” director Pete Docter said as he accepted the award.
“Soul” tells the story of Joe Gardner, a humble middle school music teacher in New York who has aspirations of being a jazz pianist.
After landing a major gig that could be his big break, Joe (voiced by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) takes a serious fall… and finds himself caught between Earth and the afterlife.
He then ends up by mistake in the “Great Before,” a world where unborn souls prepare for life and gain their personality traits — good and bad — before gaining a human body.
This abstract universe, created by Docter — who also wrote and directed Oscar winners “Up” and “Inside Out” — explores the depths of the human condition: are we born with a purpose? Does life have meaning? Do we need to find that meaning?
The film alternates between the very realistic streets of New York and the fantasy universe of the Great Before.
Pixar, which has been a pioneer in both the look and subject matter of animated films, once again takes a hard look at death, as it did in “Up” and again with “Coco.”
“Soul” also borrows a page from “Inside Out” (2015), which looked at the inner workings of the mind of an introverted little girl.
Docter told Deadline earlier this year that “Soul” is “an investigation into what’s really going on in life and how are we meant to live.”
Co-director and writer Kemp Powers added: “It’s this idea that life is about improvising and having to take all the unexpected things that are thrown at you and turn them into something of value, turn them into some beautiful.”
Powers said Pixar screened the film for test audiences to make sure it was not too dark for children.
“They get everything. They’re very smart,” Docter told NPR.
Docter also said they discussed the idea with “priests and rabbis and experts in Islam, Hinduism… to just see how these different traditions look at the soul and the afterlife and the world beyond our bodily forms.”
“Soul” ended up competing for Oscars glory with another Pixar film, “Onward,” because the awards season calendar was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, even though “Onward” was released nearly a year earlier.