When Pixar released its first feature film. Toy Story, in 1995, the studio also made its opening argument for animated films to stop being considered as “kid’s movies.” Sure your kids are going to fall in love with the characters and have a great time, but in many cases, truly understanding the lessons that are conveyed through these films requires having shared some of the experiences that we see the characters going through on-screen and most children just haven’t been down those roads. This is one of the reasons that society has latched on to these films and that they’ve become so cherished over time: as we move through life and experience, the movies come to mean different things to us. Simply put, as we change, so does what we take away from these films. Pixar has created modern-day fables meant not just to be enjoyed, but to impart wisdom that can help guide us through life. Their latest entry, Soul, does just that, delivering an eye-opening message at the end of a soul-crushing 2020. This film couldn’t have come at a better time and jumps into the top tier of Pixar films for me.
Soul is directed by Pete Docter who previously helmed Pixar classics Monsters Inc., Up and Inside Out and has definitely hit the mark here as his latest entry certainly stands tall among an already impressive body of work. Up, which was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, stands as Pixar’s most adult-oriented feature to date; Inside Out, which also won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, was one of 2015’s most heartwrenching films as we watched the all-too-real danger that teens face in losing themselves in depression. Soul carries on that adult conversation from Up and, in a good way, seems derivative of Inside Out; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the DNA of Soul came together during the production of Inside Out. Whatever the case, Docter’s direction of the screenplay that he co-wrote with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, takes us on an existential journey that leaves us wondering what it is that truly makes life worth living and reminds us that we often take for granted what it truly means to be alive. Like Up and Inside Out before it, Soul is bound to find itself nominated in the appropriate categories.
Soul follows middle-aged middle-school band teacher and lifelong music lover Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he follows up the biggest break of his life with the biggest misstep of his life. Shortly after landing his dream gig playing piano for the incredible Dorthea Williams quartet at the Half Note, the club where his passion for music was first unlocked, Gardner falls into an open manhole and enters the Great Beyond. Not ready to move on to the afterlife on the biggest day of his actual life, Gardner escapes the Great Beyond and finds himself in the Great Before: the place where souls attain the aspects of their personalities (like Boy Scout badges) before gaining their Earth passes and “living.” Gardner’s escape offsets the “count” and alerts the Great Beyond’s accountant, Terry (Rachel House). As Gardner tries to avoid discovery and find his way back to Earth, he unknowingly becomes the mentor of Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Mentors are tasked with helping their mentees fill in the final spot on their Earth passes by helping them find their “spark”, the thing that makes life worth living, something that 22 has no interest in every doing.
Joe and 22 go on a wild adventure that involves a bunch of Jerrys, body-swapping, a cat, a fantastic hippie named Moonwind (Graham Norton), a terrifying desert of lost souls and a race against time. As 22 experiences life through Joe’s eyes through a series of firsts, she grows more and more open to the idea that life is worth living. 22’s chance to finally find her spark, Joe’s role as a mentor, his lifelong fears and his future all rest in the balance as Terry is intent on setting the count right.
Foxx and Fey both give incredibly strong performances and work well off one another, but not just when it’s time to be funny. Their journey runs us through the full spectrum of emotions, including a montage where Foxx’s Joe reminisces both about his own life and his time with 22 that’s going to cause a lot of tears to be shed. While none of the other voice actors steal the show, Norton’s Moonwind and House’s Terry are great and, along with Alice Braga’s Jerry, give us plenty to chew on. Stunning visuals are a trademark of Pixar, but what they’ve pulled off here in their depiction of the Great Before is something entirely unprecedented. The way it looks, the way the inhabitants look and the way they move through it make the Great Before one of Pixar’s most incredible creations to date.
Of course, a setting is just a setting and ultimately the quality of this film rests on the story it tells and the impact it has on the audience and it’s here that Soul hits the hardest, especially as we approach the end of 2020, a year we’d all love to forget. Soul makes no bones about it: so many of us are so busy living, that we forget to live. It reminds us that the little things, the “ordinary living”, the experiences that we come to take for granted are what make life truly wonderful and sometimes it takes a shift in perspective to remind us to appreciate them. In a time when so many lost so much, Soul reminds us that in a world that seems to be obsessed with the next big thing and is full of bad news, slowing down and appreciating the world full of wonders in which we all live can put us back in touch with what it means to truly LIVE!
Pixar’s Soul will stream on Disney Plus beginning on December 25th.