Pixar has a next-to-flawless track record, but in recent years they’ve been slipping. Aside from 2015’s singular Inside Out (my favorite Pixar film) and 2017’s Coco, we’ve been seeing lots of sequels and good ideas executed poorly. Soul was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and that’s mostly because Pete Docter, one of Pixar’s original founders, was back in the director’s chair. The trailers suggested the film shares a great deal in common conceptually with Inside Out, and I was excited to learn how far Pixar would let Docter take this weird concept that is clearly not ideal for a kid’s movie.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a struggling New York City jazz pianist who has just been offered a promotion to continue working as a middle school band teacher full time. His mother (Phylicia Rashad) wants him to take the job and finally have some stability, and he’s constantly underwhelmed with where he has ended up. He always thought he was destined to become a great musician, and has never been given his big break.
That is, until one day when Joe is called for a gig with a respected jazz musician, and it’s all he’s ever wanted – the culmination of what he’s worked for his whole life. And then, as he’s walking down the street, he falls down a manhole and doesn’t exactly make it. Joe gets turned around in the afterlife and ends up in the Great Before – where new souls get their personalities and quirks before going to earth. He’s teamed up with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul that does not want to go to earth and has been avoiding it for generations. They must team up to teach each other a lesson about why life is always worth living.
As far as Pixar movies go, there’s always a tightrope being walked of keeping every potential audience member entertained. There’s the more sophisticated nuanced emotional messaging for adults, and there’s the heightened screwball comedy and insane dreamy technicolor world-building for kids. I would say that Soul has less to offer children than perhaps any other Pixar film, and that’s saying something. Soul finds itself in a very Inside Out-ish kind of place of ‘what would a physical manifestation of a soul look like?’ They’re these colorful blob-shapes that can form into whatever they want, and they’re just cute enough to work for merchandising, and hopefully they’re cute enough to keep kids entertained, because the kids are unlikely to find the deeper meaning in the existential crisis of it all.
It’s also a dazzlingly rendered New York movie. Lots of the animation looks so realistic, it makes you feel like you’re actually walking these busy city streets and like these people we encounter seem like real people. There has been a lot of internet discourse about the representation in this film, and it’s not really my responsibility to speak on that. However, I will say that a lot of these interactions, a lot of conversations particularly between Joe and his mother, seem grounded in a warmly vivid sense of reality, and nothing feels over the top when it’s not supposed to.
Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are doing terrific voice work, and it feels like a lot of what we get is the two of them just doing in-character improv, because this movie is overall much funnier than you’d think. A significant chunk of it plays like a screwball buddy comedy with lots of jokes about historical figures that are obviously only there for the older members of the audience. Docter’s script, co-written by Mike Jones and Kemp Powers (who is having a moment, between this and One Night in Miami) doesn’t rely on cheap or easy humor, and doesn’t pretend it has the answers to the biggest abstract questions it poses, but it does bring up a lot of truly fascinating ideas.
Soul has been out on Disney+ for a while now, and I’ve taken some time finishing this review, because there are plenty of aspects of this film to consider when summarizing how much it works or why it works, and there’s a lot here I’m still thinking about it after two months and several viewings of Soul. I think this is ultimately one of Pixar’s better films, and it’s one that has more emotional staying power for me. I still hold onto hope that in the post-pandemic world, there’s a demand to watch the films we missed theatrically, projected like they were originally intended, because Soul made me deeply long for the theatrical experience. But, as we’ve seen many times throughout the last horrific year, the best movies will sweep you off to somewhere new regardless of how you watch them. And I feel like Soul will continue to do so no matter how many times I watch it.