Who are you? Why are you the way you are? What is your purpose?
These are the questions that permeate Pixar’s greatest films as they dive deep into the aether of existence, exploring topics like identity, life and what it means to truly live. Behind many of these animated masterpieces is the same brilliant – yet twisted – mind, and the Docter is in once more.
In “Soul,” Pixar ace Pete Docter and co-writer/director Kemp Powers (“One Night In Miami”) have joined forces to add another entry in the studio’s pantheon of profound films, and it’s hitting Disney+ on Christmas Day.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is stuck in his ways. Things didn’t exactly pan out for the young, passionate artist who dreamt of becoming a world-renowned jazz musician. Now, Joe finds himself in middle age and middle school, conducting the local band as a way to stay connected to music – all while getting rejected for gig after gig. That is, until one day a former student invites Joe to play with the legendary Dorothea Williams Quartet, and suddenly the spark is back.
Joe crushes his audition and leaves the club with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and a new lease on life – or so he thought. But while distractedly crossing the street, he falls down a pothole, and life as Joe knew it is over.
Suddenly finding himself on the brink of The Great Beyond, aka the eternal afterlife, Joe understandably panics. He can’t die now – he just found a reason to live! In his frantic desperation, Joe’s little, neon-blue soul launches itself off the bridge to the afterlife and ends up falling into The Great Before – where souls develop their personality traits before being sent off to earth.
In order to make his way back to his body – and life – Joe must pose as a “mentor” and achieve a feat no other soul has ever accomplished: getting a stubborn soul-in-training named 22 (Tina Fey) ready for life on earth.
One of the first things about “Soul” that’s likely to strike viewers is its beauty. From the depth and detail of its animation to its mesmerizing score – and the message at its core – everything about this film is stunning. The overly-stylized characters and real-world look are beautiful, not to mention the colors, design and creativity in the animation of the afterlife and all it has to offer. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s part-electro-part-piano score combined with Jonathan Batiste’s swanky jazz arrangements make for the perfect soundtrack to Joe’s earthly and otherworldly adventures. Not to mention, Foxx and Fey are expertly voice cast as the film’s leads, bouncing playful zingers off each other while still developing a believable bond.
From the very first trailer, it was clear “Soul” would exist in a similar universe to Docter’s most recent Pixar project, “Inside Out.” While the latter tackled the emotions that make you, well, you, “Soul” looks at personality on a deeper level – and the spark that makes each person’s life worth living.
With that depth comes a certain level of inaccessibility. First and foremost, Pixar is an animation studio, and with that comes the reputation of creating children’s movies. Over the years, though, Pixar has carved out a reputation for delivering films filled with plenty of laughs for kids, but capable of sneakily working in a message that hits home with adults. This time,“Soul” feels like it flips the script, catering specifically towards an adult audience and leaving the kids as an afterthought. Diving into the intricacies of dreams, purpose and life itself, “Soul” delivers nuggets of wisdom and quotable moments that will leave the adults pondering their existence long after the credits roll, but that may go too far over the heads of younger viewers.
Sure, there’s still a fuzzy sidekick, sight gags and the like, but both the story and its jokes are likely to the same pint-sized viewers obsessed with “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” scratching their heads. Adults, on the other hand, should delight in the extremely meta humor here. From hilarious meetings with the souls of famous historical figures to a long-awaited explanation of why the New York Knicks actually suck, “Soul” lands nearly every easter egg, reference and jab with wit.
Fans of Docter’s work will know he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to hitting his audiences in the feels – just look at the tear-jerking prologue of “Up” or literally any moment in “Inside Out.” By tackling a topic as profound as the essence of a soul, it’d be easy to expect Docter to once again go the rip-your-heart-out route, but instead the emotional beats are more subtle here. A full box of tissues may not be needed – maybe just one or two.
It may not be the crowning achievement of the studio’s 23-film slate – that spot is still held by a certain little chef – but “Soul” certainly ranks near the top. After sequels made up four of Pixar’s last six films, a project as bold and inventive as “Soul” marks a welcome return to form for the historically creative studio – and one that will have viewers begging for more.
At its core, “Soul” is a film overflowing with passion, acceptance, empathy and hope, and after 2020, we all could use a heavy dose of those right about now.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.