Soul may not match the top-tier titles in Pixar ’s formidable filmography, but this emotive exploration of human existence is just as engrossing all the same.
Since the release of Toy Story 25 years ago, Pixar has held a commanding control over the animation medium, releasing masterworks on a near-yearly basis. Over time, the studio has become a household name and attained this staggering success by conceiving countless chronicles that satisfied younger audiences and adults simultaneously, offering energetic and visually effervescent entertainment that kept the attention of kids and poignant philosophizing that piqued the interest of parents. From the witty and whimsical workplace comedy in Monsters Inc. to the Odd Couple-esque odyssey of Finding Nemo to the expansive exploration of human emotion in Inside Out, Pixar showcased their commitment to complex yet commercially appealing storytelling, with almost every animated adventure earning acclaim and adoration around the world. With each subsequent release, expectations for Pixar escalated, and yet, the creatives continued to impress with instant classic after instant classic. Now that we’ve arrived at their 23rd film, Soul, the studio is set to venture into unknown terrain – by eschewing a theatrical debut for a straight-to-streaming premiere on Disney+ – but rest assured, this latest lark is still a Pixar flick through and through, telling a tale of rich emotional resonance and compelling existential contemplation that is more than able to rank amongst their best works to date.
Soul follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, of Ray and Django Unchained), a middle school music teacher in New York who not-so-secretly pines for the chance to have a career as a professional jazz player. When an opportunity arises to play with the city’s superstar saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, of Black Panther and Mission: Impossible – Fallout), Joe begins to sense that his big break might have finally arrived. At the same time, his school has offered him tenure for his teaching duties. Does Joe take the job security, or does he risk it all to flirt with fame? Before he can make up his mind, Joe soon falls into an open manhole when strolling down the street later that day, sending his soul to “The Great Before,” a world where souls shape their sense of self before coming into being. Here, he meets the sullen 22 (Tina Fey, of Mean Girls and Megamind), a “soul-in-training” that has struggled to find its “spark” and sneers at everyday earthly existence, failing to see what makes living in the real world “worth it.” Together, the two form an unlikely team and try to bring Joe back to his body, learning about little joys in life along the way and altering their personal perspectives on one’s singular “purpose.”
Director Pete Docter is certainly not one to shy away from stories that stretch our perception of what’s possible to convey conceptually in a “children’s film” – analyzing the anxieties of aging by commentating on cultural division in Monsters Inc., looking at the lingering shadow of loss in Up, and surveying the significance of sadness in Inside Out – and, as such, Soul spotlights similarly substantial subject matter by asking the age-old question, “Why am I here?” Are we merely meant to do one “Big Thing” throughout our time on Earth, or are our reasons for existing more enigmatic? Do we have any say in how our personalities are shaped, or are our unique idiosyncrasies intrinsic? These are not only the concerns that come to plague Joe’s psyche but also the timeless thoughts that nearly every human being has explored internally at one point or another and, as a result, we can immediately identify with Joe and empathize with his exasperation over his own existence.
Since Joe is such a symbol for Docter’s message with this specific movie, he doesn’t receive quite as comprehensive of character development as has befit other Pixar protagonists (and we certainly could’ve used a bit more insight into his time as a teacher or his relationship with his musician father to further flesh out his personality), but Foxx imbues him with such a sincere spirit that we are encouraged to stay engaged in his journey nonetheless. Likewise, thanks to co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers (writer of the upcoming One Night in Miami…), Joe’s background as a Black American is admirably authentic, and his relationships with the many Black men and women in his world feel far more realistic and riveting than they would have otherwise; this is especially apparent when Soul focuses on Joe’s fraught back-and-forth with his mother over his musical ambitions or on the charming connection he forms with his bighearted barber – a cornerstone of the African-American community. Therefore, though Joe himself may lack the instant individuality of much-loved Pixar leads like Woody, Dory, or Mike Wazowski, Soul still wholly honors his humanity as a Black man in a way we rarely see for diverse leads in animated features.
Often, it is actually Fey’s 22 who has the more creative character arc as a soul who has to be taught why life is even worth living in the first place. One might decry 22’s nihilism on paper, but, in the context of the film, this spark-less soul actually makes a convincing case as to why existence on Earth is “worthless,” and it is then all the more moving to watch as 22’s standpoint shifts over time. When an accident in the afterlife sends Joe and 22 back to Earth in the film’s absurdist second act, a seemingly insignificant experience of eating a slice of pizza proves to be a pivotal point for 22, coming to terms with the sensory satisfactions associated with being alive. And, while Soul’s middle stretch is slightly strung out, the appeal of 22’s endless excitement with everyday events never loses its allure, reminding us that the most meaningful moments are sometimes the most miniscule as well – something we must not lose sight of when life’s trials and tribulations threaten to blur the “bigger picture.” As expected, Fey’s signature sardonic wit fits splendidly with 22’s sarcastic skepticism, bringing about some of the best comedic beats in the entire film, but her deft handling of Soul’s drama is additionally affecting, as she credibly captures the complexity of her character’s emotional evolution.
Soul’s overall story is simpler than one would expect given its grander goals, and, at times, it’s hard not to feel like the picture is just running through “Pixar’s greatest hits” by integrating ideas and elements from earlier accomplishments as opposed to sketching out a more subversive plot structure, but by the time its cathartic conclusion arrives and all of Pete Docter’s puzzle pieces click into place, the sweeping strength of this third act almost accounts for all of the former flaws one may have found with the film. Though it somewhat pulls its punches by not ending this epic on the more audacious (and admittedly appropriate) note that it seems to be steering towards, it still feels like Joe and 22 receive rightful resolutions to their individual transformations, and the impact of this particular finale is impressively inspirational all the same.
Pixar’s photorealistic animation has been progressing for quite some time now, but their vibrant visualization of New York City is potentially a new peak for the studio, as audiences will become instantaneously engrossed in their expression of this expansive environment and their delicate attention to even the most minute details – the shimmer of a streetlight, a flimsy feather floating in the wind, the tantalizing texture of pepperoni pizza, and so much more. Aside from this achievement, their ravishing realization of “The Great Before” blends conventionally “cute” CGI (for the “souls” themselves) with more auteurist animation techniques (for the conception of this celestial climate as a whole) to elegant effect. While we travel through these sumptuous settings with Joe and 22, we are equally entranced by the spellbinding score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which efficiently evokes the etherealness of Soul’s spiritual scenery.
In the end, Soul may not fully match the magnificence of the masterpieces of Pixar’s past, but it’s a visually exciting and effectively emotional experience nevertheless, tackling touching themes with striking sophistication and masterful maturity. Its characters may not be as classically compelling as we’ve come to expect from the studio, but vivacious voicework from Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey turn Joe and 22 into pleasant protagonists regardless, and the lessons we learn from their travels invite impactful introspection that will linger long after the credits roll.
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