Soul is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, a studio that needs no introduction by this point. Though Pixar hit their first rough patches during the 2010s (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), for the most part, they’ve had a nearly-unprecedented streak of classics. As such, the release of a new Pixar film usually serves as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of any given year. That was to be the case for Soul as well, with Disney heavily promoting it alongside the likes of Frozen 2 a year before its planned 2020 release. Of course, like so many 2020 films, Soul saw a number of setbacks and delays, before finally being made available as a streaming exclusive to Disney+ on Christmas Day.
Soul is directed by Pixar’s new head honcho Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, effectively making him Pixar’s most imaginative and whimsical filmmaker. While most of Pixar’s films are easily identifiable by a specific theme (toys, cars, fish, bugs, etc.), Docter’s films tend to be more abstract or ethereal (Monsters, Inc. probably fit in more with Pixar’s usual “themed” films, though even then the concept of closet monsters makes for more imaginatively fertile ground than the others). This was made most apparent with Inside Out, a film that presented the inner emotions of a little girl as its leading characters, as they ventured through different avenues of the human mind. In a sense, Soul is like a spiritual follow-up to Inside Out, using a similarly existential idea as the basis of its story. While Inside Out took audiences into the world of thoughts and emotion, Soul takes things a step further by exploring the human soul itself.
Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has always dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. He doesn’t hate his job as a teacher, but does feel stuck and held back by it. His seamstress mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his musical aspirations, further dampening his attitude towards his life’s situation.
Things start looking up for Joe, however, when a former student – who now plays for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – informs Joe that there’s been an opening in Dorothea’s band. Joe makes an impression in his audition, and he’s personally asked by Dorothea to perform with her band later that night.
Ecstatic that his dreams could finally be coming true, Joe is a bit careless on his way home to prepare for the gig, and ends up falling down an open manhole. Joe now finds himself as a blobby, blue soul, riding a kind of escalator to transport him to “the Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death on the day his life finally started to turn around, Joe stumbles off the escalator and finds himself in “the Great Before,” the place where souls gain their personalities before they go to Earth.
Here, the unborn souls are watched over by cosmic beings who all go by the name “Jerry” (abstract creatures who are simultaneously two-dimensional and three-dimensional). The various Jerrys mistake Joe for a “mentor,” an experienced soul who takes an unborn soul under their wing before the former ascends to the Great Beyond and the latter makes their journey to Earth. Joe decides to play along until he can find a way back to his body on Earth, and winds up as the mentor to a troublesome soul named “22” (Tina Fey), who has spent millennia in the Great Before as countless mentors (including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa) have failed to instill 22 with the inspiration she needs to find her ‘spark,’ which is required before she can go to Earth.
I feel like I can’t divulge any more of the plot without spoiling the specifics, but suffice to say that Joe has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to reconnect with his body and help 22 find a reason to live. Their adventure will span both this incorporeal realm as well as a few trips back to Earth (in unexpected ways), and takes a number of twists and turns.
Visually speaking, Soul is among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The human world looks more realistic than the usual Pixar fare (with the humans still having a cartoonish and exaggerated look), while the afterlife (or ‘betweenlife’ or whatever you want to call it) is a serene, visually arresting animated world, the kind you know will long stay in the memory. The aforementioned “Jerrys” as well as the “lost souls” should rank near the top of Pixar’s best character designs.
Like Inside Out, Soul seems to be having a ball exploring its concept. Not just for the visual splendor of it, but also for the creativity of its story and humor. We learn that passionate artists in the living world enter an ethereal plain simply called “The Zone” when they get lost in their art, but that the Zone can also transform souls into their “lost” selves, should obsessions and anxiety take hold. There’s a sign twirling guru named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who is willingly able to travel to the Zone through meditation. And the Jerrys question why they send so many souls into the pavilions that teach self-absorbtion. I don’t think Soul quite reaches Inside Out in making the most out of its concept, but like any of the Pixar greats, it certainly does bring a lot of charm and creativity out of it.
I feel like I’m referencing Inside Out a lot, but I feel the comparison is close to unavoidable, given that Soul is Docter’s follow-up feature to Inside Out, and that its concept makes it feel more inline with Inside Out than any other previous Pixar picture. And I’m afraid it’s in that sense that I feel Soul falls a bit short. For all the merit Soul does have, I don’t feel like it ever reaches the same heights as Docter’s previous masterpiece, whether through emotion or story.
Perhaps I set my expectations too high in regards to Soul. After all, I consider Inside Out to be Pixar’s greatest film full-stop. But again, it’s hard not to make the comparison, given the similarities between the two in both narrative DNA and as the works from the same filmmaker.
I suppose it’s not too critical of a complaint to say Soul falls short of what I believe is Pixar’s best effort, but there is that extra something missing from Soul that prevents it from sitting alongside Pixar’s very best. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, since I don’t think that Soul does anything particularly wrong, so much as it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.
Inside Out used its concept to strip Pixar films to their bare essence, exposing their heart and soul (ironically enough). Pixar films have often been noted for bringing audiences to tears, and Inside Out basically expressed what every Pixar film aimed to achieve emotionally. I feel like Soul has similarly deep and meaningful things to say about life and why our passions may not necessarily be our purpose, but I feel like it doesn’t always know how to express these themes. I admit it actually took two viewings for me to appreciate what Soul was trying to say, though even now I don’t feel it in the same way I did for Inside Out.
Soul is a great movie on its own merits, don’t get me wrong. It tells a great, imaginative story with some of the best visuals Pixar has created. It has terrific vocal performances, a strong musical score and – like Ratatouille and Coco before it – has an infectious love of music and the arts. And yes, I even think the message of the film is potentially as profound as any Pixar has done. It’s just in the way that Soul often stumbles in conveying that message that holds it back from reaching the same staggering heights of some of its Pixar predecessors. With that said, even with its flaws, Pixar’s Soul is, much like Pete Docter’s previous work, a beautiful movie, inside and out.