2020 has been a tough year here on planet Earth. Disease is running rampant, we’re trapped in our homes most of the time, we can’t visit friends and family, and the presence of death in our everyday lives is at a level usually only associated with times of war. It seems fitting that on Christmas Day in the midst of this pandemic a movie like Soul, the latest film from Pixar, reminds us that as bad as life can seem, it is actually a gift that shouldn’t be squandered or unappreciated.
Joe Gardner is an aspiring jazz pianist, who has had to settle as a part-time middle school band teacher. His obsession with the music he loves ends up causing an accident that sends him on a path to The Great Beyond. Looking for a way back to Earth, he meets a soul waiting to be born who doesn’t want to go. They devise a plan to get what they each want… that, of course, goes completely off track.
I think it’s important to say right up front that Soul is not your typical American animated film. Even for Pixar, this one is much more on the heavy side. It’s definitely got humor and fun. But a lot of the enjoyment to be had comes from watching the development of the characters and pondering the deep questions being considered. That is not a put-down! Go in ready to be stimulated and you’re going to enjoy the movie. Go in expecting a laugh-fest, you’re going to be disappointed.
With that out of the way, the story is almost pitch-perfect. Unfortunately for me, it’s hard to convey what exactly I thought worked so well without spoiling things. But, as usual, I will try my best!
In a somewhat surprising move, Joe is sent on his way to The Great Beyond before the opening credits. We as an audience have barely gotten a chance to get to know him. However, that choice works well as a storytelling device since it allows us to see his life from the point of view of others, not from his own biased perspective. We hear from him how his life was, then watch as he sees it from a different vantage point. We realize at the same time as he does that he wasn’t always seeing things as they truly were. And that connects us with what he is going through. The yet-to-be-born soul, named 22, may be on the opposite side of the divide, but she’s playing the same song as Joe. She’s never experienced life, but considers herself an expert on how terrible it is. She too is forced to see things with fresh eyes. Having two seemingly discordant characters each taking an opposite side of a position, but in reality going through the exact same experience makes the story-telling all the more engaging.
As I wrote earlier this year in my review of Onward, one of my favorite things about certain Pixar movies is what I call their “subversive wisdom”, for lack of a better phrase. Hollywood has simplistic morals that usually get repeated over and over again in media for kids. Pixar sometimes gives kids a little more nuanced message. In Soul, the lesson repeated for most of the film sounds exactly like what you would expect in a cartoon: “find your spark, your purpose in life”. But by the end of the story, the writers have turned that messaging into something much more interesting, meaningful, and complex for those paying attention.
A major issue one might have with the plot revolves around an unavoidable problem when doing a story with characters moving between life and after-life: how do you get them back and forth? Pixar has come up with their own way, and, like anything they might have come up with, if you think about it too long you can come up with several large plot holes. As much as I hate to say it, in a story like this you have to kind of ignore some of that. As long as the writers make rules about how their version of this world works and they stick to it, I think you have to give them some leeway to riff.
Another thing viewers might debate is that ending. There were so many different directions they could have went in, all of which were potentially set up. I obviously can’t say more, but after reflection I did agree with the ending they composed though I did find it surprising at first. If you aren’t happy with it, it might help to think back on that subversive wisdom.
Big picture, I love the ambition Pixar showed in green-lighting a story like this. This is a film that could have went wrong in so many ways. This is the Pixar we all remember! The studio that made a movie with no talking for the first thirty minutes! The studio that made a movie with rats in a kitchen cooking and made it beautiful! The studio that made a movie with a geriatric lead character! The studio that put their most popular characters into an incinerator holding hands as they faced certain death — and we all knew if any studio had the guts to actually kill some of their characters off it would be Pixar! So I applaud them for even taking the risk on Soul. They took a crazy concept and an idea with a huge scope and made it relatable the same way they always do — by focusing it all down onto a small number of characters we come to care about.
The animation in Soul is some of the most beautiful and interesting in the Pixar canon — and some of the most diverse as well. As in Ratatouille, where the city of Paris was almost a character in and of itself, here the spirit of New York City is palpable in every scene it is featured in. Like the actual city itself, these scenes are filled with life and have a wonderful lived in quality that sometimes is hard to capture in computer animation. The land of the souls-in-waiting is plush and has a beautifully hopeful feel to it. The path to The Great Beyond is stark and eerily stunning. Like the locales, the character designs are equally appealing and varied. Joe and his fellow humans are some of the most detailed Pixar has ever given life to. The souls are at the same time playful and ethereal without seeming like ghosts. The soul counselors deserve special praise. Their Picasso-esque designs were extremely compelling and their animation and movement were a lot of fun.
Like the animation, the music of Soul features a mix of styles. Unlike Coco, another Pixar film with a focus on music, here everything blended well without feeling forced. Jon Batiste handled the jazz sections of the film while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross focused on the score, specifically those parts in the metaphysical realm. While maybe not always as immediately hummable as a Newman or Giacchino score, in the film both styles worked just as effectively and really helped sell the authenticity of each world.
I believe a voice cast works best when you never even think about the actors themselves. While I of course knew Jamie Foxx was playing Joe, after a few minutes that fact never crossed my mind again. And I had completely forgot about Tina Fey’s involvement so wasn’t even aware of her until the end credits. Both roles were very well voiced. And while the duo may not be as iconic as other Pixar buddies, that is more down to the film itself rather than the performances.
Soul is a film with lofty aspirations, and it hits the high notes almost every time — with incredible animation, captivating music, and an engrossing plot. While it’ll make you think a lot more than it will make you laugh, the end result is a virtuoso performance. And at the very end of a year like this one, we can all use a reminder about how precious life is and that we should make the most of the time we’re given.
Decmber 25, 2020
directed by Pete Docter