Pixar films at their best are wildly imaginative, speaking to children and adults alike. On paper, most Pixar films have basic scenarios with complex themes – toys that come to life or the monsters under the bed become surrogates for parenthood; a family of superheroes gives way to themes of isolation, self-worth, and our place in a world full of special abilities; rats that cook become statements about self-expression and the amplification of new, bold talents.
Pete Docter has been a part of Pixar from the beginning, but his films seem to come from a place where Docter’s flights of fancy do not seem to lend themselves to cinematic storytelling. How does one make a movie about an old man and his balloon-flying house, or the emotions of a little girl vying for their spot at the controls? Every time I sit down to one of his new movies I have no idea what to expect, and Docter delivers some of the most innovative films the studio has ever released.
Up’s first 10 minutes are perfect: emotionally rich and an instant investment into the story. I first saw those 10 minutes unfinished about six months before Up was released to theaters, with pen sketches and uncompleted computer animation, and even unfinished it worked like gangbusters. There is a purity and an economy to Docter’s storytelling that, once you experience it, makes you wonder how no one had thought of it before.
Pixar films are family films, but Soul may be the first Pixar film that has themes that children may not quite be able to grasp. For adults, however, those emotions will feel particularly meaningful, resonant, and deep. Soul may have the widest scope of any of the Pixar films so far, dealing with weighty themes such as life, death, creation, purpose, inspiration, music – the film tackles a lot and seems to juggle them with ease.
However, even the great marketing team at Disney would struggle to pinpoint, exactly, what Soul is about. Pete Docter and co-director Kemp Powers are not afraid of confusing or losing their audience in a sea of metaphor and symbolism. They are as sure a guide as any live-action filmmaker, plus they get every artist at their disposal to create amazing, freeform worlds.
So what is Soul about? Ostensibly, it is about a music teacher, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who seemingly would rather be playing jazz gigs than teaching it to his middle school students. Every once in a while, though, a student shows real promise, and that is when Joe truly feels like he is doing something that matters.
Most of the time, though, Joe dreams about a career as a full-time jazz piano player. Then, one of Joe’s former students gets Joe a gig playing for a major jazz singer, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). This could be Joe’s big break. But on the day of the gig, Joe, distracted in New York City traffic, walks right into a manhole and dies.
Or does he? Joe desperately tries to escape his fate after death, escaping the Great Beyond, and winds up as a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul that hasn’t been born, and who refuses to go to Earth to experience it. Joe needs to make that gig, and through a series of mishaps, manages to get to Earth – with 22 possessing Joe’s body, and Joe possessing a very fat calico therapy cat named Mr. Mittens.
To tell more of the story would be unwise. Yes, as this is a Pixar movie, Joe and 22 scramble across New York City and the afterlife to try to make Joe’s gig, but Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are after bigger game than your usual animated hijinks. Docter and Powers are tackling nothing less than the meaning of life here, and they are not afraid to come across as silly or too intellectual as he does it.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall at Pixar as Docter pitched this one at Pixar. Soul goes everywhere, but Docter and Powers have such discipline and storytelling precision here that it’s marvelous to watch. The animation is stunning – Docter and Powers are not just animating characters but concepts, and how he makes them resonate and have meaning is a sight to behold.
Visually, Soul is unlike any Pixar film to date; Coco also dealt with the afterlife, but that was culturally specific. Soul is expansive and ambitious, and unafraid to lose the audience to make a philosophical point. Soul is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps that’s why Disney decided to make Soul available for streaming; a story about a music teacher’s exploration of everything doesn’t exactly lend itself to a movie poster. But I would have loved to have seen Soul in a theater. Not only are the visuals jaw dropping, but the jazz additions by Jonathan Batiste is sumptuous.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have had a very diverse and interesting year, but Soul may be the best collaboration they have ever done. It is playful, rich, and emotional. We now live in a world where the singer of Nine Inch Nails is crafting songs for Disney, but the score for Soul is so wonderful that I hope Reznor and Ross return to Pixar someday.
The voice cast is up to the challenge of Soul’s metaphysical journey. I especially loved Jamie Foxx’s performance; he is able to tap into Joe’s angst and drive, but he’s also very funny, especially when he voices Mr. Mittens. So is Tina Fey – 22 has lived through all of existence, but nothing seems to give 22 that spark to join life on Earth, but we also sense that 22 wants to live a life of meaning, and Tina Fey manages to bring all of that together with her work here.
It’s difficult to explain Graham Norton’s character of Moonwind — it’s best discovered in the context of the film — but Norton adeptly takes us through the shifts and the exposition with grace and humor. I also loved the Counselors Jerry — again, see the movie — and the work of Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, and Fortune Feimster.
I realize this review is a bit frustrating. Soul is a very hard movie to describe. It’s about so many things – jazz, New York City, family, our place in the universe, our need to find a purpose, our destiny, everything. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are painting on a big canvas, but they start from an intimate place: one man’s decision to live a life of agency and purpose.
Not to sound hyperbolic, but Soul is going to be living inside me for a long time. It will probably require some distance to rank this in the Pixar catalog. It struck me on a very personal level, and I imagine it will with many people. It is as diverse as New York City itself, and it loves that glorious, grimy, busy metropolis.
Soul is best experienced on its own without any pretense. It’s vast, spiritual, epic yet familiar, and, with time, may be the best film Pixar’s made until now.
Soul Review Score: 9.5/10
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years, for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.