Review: Pixar's brilliant 'Soul' hits all the magical notes
Courtesy of Disney+/PIXAR
Understanding our identity and coping with an existential crisis isn’t something that screams: “children’s movie!” But when it comes to Pixar and their gorgeous animated texture and style, they can turn mature themes into lessons for the whole family. Enter Pete Docter’s joyous “Soul,” a beautiful exploration of the mind not seen since Docter’s previous masterpiece, “Inside Out.”
Continuing to redefine how animated films evolve, Pixar’s “Soul” is a deeply strange though ultimately rewarding entry in the studio’s canon, which over the years has dabbled with sequels to hit movies, “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Toy Story,” than investing in original content. “Soul” is a welcome return to top-tier Pixar, reminding the world that, when it comes to accessible animated content, they remain king. Not that anyone was doubting that proposition, but recent flicks “Finding Dory” and “Toy Story 4” left plenty to be desired, and “The Incredibles 2,” though incredible, failed to reach the highs of its predecessor.
“Soul” might be complicated for younger viewers to understand, but it’s what makes Pixar unique. Instead of taking its core audience for granted, they try to sell them big ideas in fluffy packages, and “Soul” is no different. Doctor’s film is a montage of singular moments in time, offering glimpses into what makes us human, and appreciating our purpose no matter how small we assume it to be. You could be a mascot twirling a sign on a street corner, or a struggling jazz musician trying to make ends meet. It’s never too late to start living, and our existence reaches far beyond the ethos of comprehension.
“Soul” follows Joe (voiced enthusiastically by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged, African-American guy in New York City’s jazz scene trying to jumpstart his career at the expense of his personal life. By day he teaches band to semi-gifted middle schoolers, and in the evening hustles to land paying musical gigs at the behest of his stern mother who insists he settle down and get a steady income. But he still yearns to play that jazz piano and when a former student gets him the chance to play with one of the most high profile jazz musicians in the world, suddenly life comes into focus.
And just when the going gets good. Splat. He falls into a manhole and finds himself occupying an otherworldly dimension that exists before, during and after death, where folks are headed to “The Great Beyond.” Joe breaks out of the “Great Beyond” ascension line and lands at the seminal start of life where physical, not-yet born souls are being “prepped” for life on earth. Joe inadvertently gets tasked with mentoring soul number 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who's gone through countless mentors ranging from Gandhi to Abrham Lincoln. You see, a mentor is an entity on the way out and whose job is to help fresh souls discover what makes them tick. It could be reading books, painting pictures, or playing basketball, but souls can’t physically go to earth until it’s received an honorary badge signaling its interest. 22 is widely considered to be a lost cause, though Joe wants to get back into his comatose body and the two strike up an agreement to make it happen,
At the sake of not spoiling the second half surprises, let’s just say 22 and Joe get in some fun, creative Pixar hijinks that may or may not involve a cuddly feline and hurl them across New York City in a race against the clock scenario. It’s the type of plot only Docter and his co-writers Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers could cook up.
I understand that’s quite a load and getting caught up in the film's narrative pull can become frustrating (your child might ask questions that are hard to answer) but it’s layers are rooted in gentle compassion that “Soul” is practically a warm hug of an experience. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross lend their talents to arguably the best score of the year (this makes them 2 for 2 with “Mank”) and the voice talent assembled - ranging from Foxx and Fey to Rachel House and Graham Norton - give 2020 the boost of kindness it desperately needs.
Keep the tissues handy.
SOUL will be available exclusively on Disney+ Friday, December 25th.