One of many haunting lines from 'Soul' - Pixar's latest existential think piece - comes from its protagonist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, 'Just Mercy'). "I'm worried that if I died today," he says, "my life would have amounted to nothing." It's a lot to think about, especially in the middle of a pandemic that has permanently skewed what it means to lead a fulfilling life. Some days, simply breathing and surviving is the best you can expect of yourself. It's a concept Pixar dives headfirst into with 'Soul', resulting in their funniest, strangest, and overall most stunning film in years.
In the interest of keeping the film's best plot beats a surprise, I'll make this synopsis brief. Joe Gardner, an unfulfilled jazz teacher, finds himself at two crossroads; one between his mother's wishes for a stable job (Phylicia Rashad, 'Creed II') and his career aspirations as a jazz pianist, and the other between the physical and metaphysical worlds after a freak accident leaves his body and soul separated, right before the most important jazz performance of his life. What could very easily become a return-from-a-foreign-land storyline so frequently utilised by Pixar makes way for a traditional buddy movie when Joe becomes stuck with 22 (Tina Fey, 'Wine Country', TV's '30 Rock', 'Mean Girls'), a cynical soul he encounters in the Great Before who appears to have no interest in joining a body on Earth. Faced with the uncertainty of death and with Joe desperate to get back to his body, he and 22 ponder existence on Earth and their perception of how one can and should define their purpose.
For those worried such heavy subject matter may be too much for younger viewers, 'Soul' is buoyed by eye-popping visuals, a clever script bursting with jokes, and a gorgeous score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails (following their acclaimed work on 'Mank'). I have previously noted that Dreamworks was making their way up as the best animators in the industry after the 'How to Train Your Dragon' trilogy, but 'Soul' is on a whole other level. Lighting and depth perception ground Joe's scenes on Earth in ways I've never seen animation pull off before; reality honestly felt plain after watching this film. The metaphysical realms in the film traverse similar bright landscapes and fluffy textures also seen in 'Inside Out' (to which 'Soul' almost acts as a spiritual sequel), leaning into the freedoms of movement and creativity the medium allows. Knowing that 'Soul' was initially intended for a cinematic release before the COVID-19 pandemic, only to be dumped on Disney+ on Christmas Day for a mass release, is insulting to a film as visually beautiful as this one (the one benefit of a home release is the pausing and poring over the most minute of details I fully plan on conducting during rewatches). I can't even imagine the impact of these visuals on a big screen.
Call it intuition or an unwillingness to long for yet another film that would fall victim to COVID-19-induced release delays (more on that later), my knowledge about 'Soul' prior to its release didn't extend beyond some promotional images and Jamie Foxx's involvement. I can't recommend a better way to approach this film; there are plot beats which fall right into predictable Pixar procedure, but they're deployed in such ways that I didn't anticipate, and infuse new life into the film when its initial premise appears to be wearing thin. This predictability also acts as a comfort as the film's themes traverse the increasingly nuanced and existential - and as audiences begin to inevitably well up in the final half-hour.
As always, Pixar extracts brilliant vocal performances from its stacked cast, which keeps the film captivating throughout. Jamie Foxx may seem like an obvious pick for the voice of Joe, but he also brings a weariness to the role that makes Joe's midlife crisis land even harder. The real standouts, however, are the smaller roles filled by some of my favourite actors; British comedian/director/all-round legend Richard Ayoade ('The Souvenir') lands some of the film's best laughs in his character's minimal screen time (the man has a voice made for animation), and Angela Bassett ('Avengers: Endgame') commands the role of jazz legend Dorothea Williams in a way only Angela Bassett could. Daveed Diggs (Disney's 'Hamilton') and Rachel House ('Thor: Ragnarok') also make brief but memorable appearances.
With the exception of an incredibly lazy gender-flip sequel in 2015 (I'm looking at you, 'Incredibles 2'), it would be hard to call a 2010s Pixar film outrightly bad. Sadly, this built-in acceptance of Pixar's general output quality - and the bonus dimension of nostalgia that comes with their releases (7 of their 13 films this decade are sequels) - has resulted in a decade where they've coasted on high esteem no matter what they've put out, and this year's 'Onward' reeked of a studio unwilling to shake a winning formula, no matter how uninspired it had become. It's been years since a Pixar film teemed with as much potential and ambition as 'Soul' does, and director Pete Docter's ('Up') biggest challenge is knowing where to reel in a world with near-infinite possibilities, questions and stories to tell. In trying to make 'Soul' a personal story, Docter leaves a large number of universe "rules" with loose ends, a trait uncharacteristic of most Pixar films. As a result, some have labelled 'Soul' as a "messy" film, but isn't that sort of the point of a 100-minute children's film scratching at the cerebral?
For those worried the heavy subject matter may be too much for younger viewers, 'Soul' is buoyed by eye-popping visuals, a clever script bursting with jokes, and a gorgeous score.
My one major gripe with the film is, once again, Pixar's disappointing representations of people of colour, and it hurts even more in the case of 'Soul' considering just how much of the film's DNA is rooted in African-American culture and jazz music. Pixar (and by extension, Disney) has a history of subjecting their lead characters of colour to physical transformations, changing them into animals or otherworldly beings for most of the runtime. 'Soul' is certainly not their worst offence in terms of this runtime representation (Joe's physical form is utilised as a pivotal second act running gag, even when his soul isn't necessarily present) and the film's commitment to composing accurate jazz performances is breathtaking, but it will most certainly leave a bitter taste in the mouths of audiences who just want their stories to be told without interruption. Furthermore, the decision to dump 'Soul' (a new film from a beloved animation company) and 'Mulan' (a guaranteed live-action reboot moneymaker) on a streaming service in response to the COVID-19 pandemic feels like an injustice to the way stories with minority leads deserve to be told. It makes no sense from a financial standpoint either; if the box office is not a concern (which is what releasing 'Soul' and 'Mulan' on Disney+ implies), why not also release 'Black Widow', Marvel's long-awaited next instalment, on Disney+? The answer is obvious, but it's one Disney will continue to ignore as long as they can.
In a year where most of us have been trapped indoors, the timing of 'Soul's' release can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. For some, it will act as a calming balm for a tough year; the perfect vehicle for inducing a good cry. Others, on the other hand, may reject it as yet another unnecessary mirror held up to their biggest fears exacerbated by a year where living with perceived "purpose" has been near impossible. No matter which side of this you fall on, 'Soul' implores you to find beauty and gratitude in your circumstances. There is no doubt that is by far the best film Pixar has released in years - possibly even this decade.