Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
As discussed in the Onward (2020) review, Pixar is unmatched in animated storytelling. With a few exceptions, it seems like there’s nothing the studio can’t do. Pixar can pull heartstrings like nobodies business, but part of that success comes from their ability to connect with adults as well as children. Pixar films would still be emotionally powerful and narratively complex if they were in live-action, but the animated format opens our hearts in ways live-action can’t. The bar for animated storytelling is so high that Pixar itself sometimes finds it difficult to live up to their own legacy. For a while there, the studio was so imaginative that they didn’t resort to sequels until recently. Happily, entries like Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017) and Onward (2020) showed there are still plenty of original tales left to tell. Pixar’s latest film Soul (2020), even proves the studio can still raise the bar.
Set in New York City, we are introduced to Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a struggling Jazz pianist who is slumming around as a part time music teacher while waiting for his big break. He finally gets his chance to be part of a Jazz quartet, but luck isn’t on his side. Upon hearing the good news, Joe falls down an open manhole. He wakes to find that he’s no longer inhabiting his physical body, as his soul is now on its way to the afterlife known as ‘The Great Beyond’. Unwilling to pass on, he avoids going into the light, only to find himself trapped in another realm known as ‘The Great Before’. This is where new souls are born and prepare for their arrival on Earth. In order to get back to Earth, Joe needs to work with a difficult soul named Number 22 (Tina Fey), who has been refusing to use her entry card to Earth for 1000’s of years.
Pixar’s animation style is pretty unmistakable at this point, so newer entries often try to find their own unique look. Right from the get go, Soul eclipses nearly every other Pixar film in terms of visual invention. The Great Beyond, The Great Before, Earth and the various other realms all have their own individual design, meaning the viewer is treated to different and exciting worlds on a scene by scene basis. Inside Out created many new worlds across its surreal dreamscape, but they were still all displayed in the same colourful and nicely rounded aesthetic. That’s not the case here, as the artistic design is rebuilt from the ground up every time we enter a new domain. It’s a staggering achievement to have all these contrasting visual flourishes feel like they belong together.
The different artistic styles haven’t been picked by accident, as they expertly communicate layers of the film’s thought provocative nuance. Earth’s near photo realism highlights the recognisably dull and gorgeously beautiful things about our world. The Great Before is a hypnotic wonderland filled with believably theoretical concepts, all of which causes the viewer to endlessly ponder questions about our origins and purpose. For what little it appears, the Great Beyond is the truly jaw dropping element, as it leaves the audience looking forward at what’s to come, as well as looking back to where we’ve been. It’s rather unprecedented as to how existential Soul gets. Sure, Pixar has gone to fairly deep places before, but this time it even goes to metaphysical places adult films rarely go.
The closest comparison to Soul is Pixar’s own Coco, which ironically also dealt with musicians and a version of the afterlife. The difference was that Coco mostly engaged with the viewer’s heart, whereas Soul engages with the mind. To be clear, Soul is still a breathtakingly heartwarming story, but it leaves you thinking like no other Pixar film ever has. Just like Joe, you’ll be left assessing your achievements, your failures, your hopes, your dreams and your future. It all sounds pretty heavy, but director Pete Docter communicates these ideas in a non-confrontational manner, allowing the audience to look at themselves without judgement and look forward with excitement. Between Monsters Inc (2001), Up (2009), Inside Out and Soul, Pete Docter just might be the most mature and inspiring storyteller Pixar has.
With that in mind, Soul is arguably not that accessible to younger viewers. To be clear, Soul is perfectly kid friendly as there’s obviously no violence or adult content, but the narrative itself may go over kids heads. This even comes down to the wonderful script, which is filled with moments of character development worthy of an adult drama. Not only that, but the film’s comedy is squarely pointed at older audiences cultural knowledge. It’s all sidesplittingly funny and incredibly clever, making it a family film that parents will appreciate more than kids. A child will probably still follow the story and enjoy it thoroughly, but every character beat and story element explicitly represents existential concepts only older people will understand. However, kids do eventually see mature films, so Soul is a perfect candidate as child’s a first one.
As expected, the voice cast is a who’s who of A-list talent. Jamie Foxx, Angela Basset, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Graham Norton, Donnell Rawlings, June Squibb, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Esther K. Chae all bring infectious life to their animated counterparts. It’s clear from their delivery that no one in the cast treated their role as a quick payday, as they bring the kind of energy they would to any of their live-action performances. Most importantly, they recognise the thematic gravity of the narrative and compliment that in their delivery. You could look at any of their arcs and recognise how the characters oscillate from being worldweary to wise. This is most true of Jamie Foxx as Joe and Tina Fey as 22, who turn out to be a charming and complicated duo.
In this day and age, it’s important to have films which address our thoughts, feelings, sorrows and happiness. Not many films manage to single handedly pull off a complete analysis of these ideas, but Pixar is more than up to the task. Soul lives up to the studio’s impressive legacy, delivering a beautiful and inventive animated story that’s as charming as it is cerebral.
Best way to watch it: In a marathon with Coco.