‘Soul’ Review: Pete Docter Has the Prescription For the 2020 Blues
Is Pixar okay?
I don’t mean creatively. Every single movie from the studio is still worth watching, even if they rarely reach the heights of Pixar’s golden age in the mid-2000s. But consider their last three films. Toy Story 4 broke up one of the most beloved friendships in cinema history as part of a rumination about getting older and growing apart. Last spring’s Onward featured two brothers who use magic to resurrect their late father for one more day. Their latest project, Soul, follows the disembodied consciousness of a jazz teacher after he dies and passes on to the spiritual plane.
All of these movies are centrally focused on mortality, loss, and especially death. It really seems like Pixar is working through something. The studio’s always been known for taking the notion of “animated movies for the whole family” far more literally than their competitors, producing cartoons that are as much for parents as their kids. Their recent output goes much further than that, though. These new movies are so dark that they might freak out adults, much less their children — although Pixar still throws in enough eye candy and physical comedy to keep them entertained.
Admittedly, Soul’s adult content is slightly less shocking coming from Pete Docter, a director with a unique gift for wedding high-concept story hooks to weighty themes. His films have always been among Pixar’s boldest — like Up, with its emotionally devastating opening montage about a marriage, and Inside Out, which passionately argued for the importance of sadness in all of our lives. Soul is his most ambitious effort yet, and nothing less than the cinematic equivalent of an existential crisis, which also makes it the perfect artistic capper to 2020.
The man who serves as the film’s guide to the afterlife is Joe Garner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. While he works as a New York City middle school music teacher, Joe hopes for a more exciting and creatively satisfying life as jazz pianist. One very momentous day, Joe gets his chance. In the morning, his middle school offers him a full-time job with benefits — much to the delight of Joe’s supportive but worried mother (Phylicia Rashad). In the afternoon, a former student named Curly (Questlove) gives him a chance to earn a seat with a quartet fronted by the great saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Should Joe settle down or chase his dreams? Joe kills the jazz audition, and secures a gig with the band that night — and then accidentally kills himself, when he doesn’t watch where he’s going and falls down an open manhole.
From there, Joe’s soul — a luminescent blue blob with hat and glasses — journeys into “The Great Beyond,” represented as a Powell and Pressburger-esque escalator rising towards an enormous white light. Refusing to accept his fate so close to his big break, Joe manages to instead sneak into “The Great Before,” where newly-created souls are imprinted with personality traits and prepared for life on Earth. He’s offered the chance to become a mentor to one such wayward spirit, dubbed 22 (Tina Fey), who has spent eons in the Great Before shrugging off other teachers and generally doing whatever she can to avoid the pains and struggles of human existence. Joe believes if he helps 22 embrace her potential life, he might get a second shot at his — although his disappearance from the Great Beyond does not go unnoticed, and the omnipotent beings charged with keeping accurate counts of the comings and goings vow to hunt Joe down and bring him back where he belongs.
At times, Soul is as heavy as it sounds, and invites all sorts of contemplation from viewers about our purpose on this planet, and whatever (and wherever) comes afterwards. At other times, it is uproariously funny, particularly after Joe and 22’s story takes a very unexpected turn in its second half. In typical Pixar fashion, it’s also visually stunning, both in the warmly lit spaces of Manhattan’s jazz clubs and in the kaleidoscopic metaphysical realm where Joe begins to reconsider his priorities. Foxx and Fey make another classic Pixar buddy pair in the tradition of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen or Billy Crystal and John Goodman. And the music — jazz songs by Jon Batiste, along with a more electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — wraps the whole package in a lush, ethereal atmosphere.
Given the way Soul throws viewers into this massive, mystical universe, it really would have been nice to see it projected in a movie theater. The film absolutely loses something in the immersion department on a smaller screen. Still, delaying Soul’s release for months on end would have directly contracted its ultimate message about living every day to its absolute fullest rather than waiting in perpetuity for a dream that will magically solve all your problems. There was no better way for Pixar to practice what it’s preaching with Soul than by making the movie available on Disney+.
After Soul’s final scenes left me a blubbering mess, I realized it’s well past time to recognize Docter as one of the very best working filmmakers in America. Between his four features as a director, and writing credits that include Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and WALL-E, there isn’t a bad title — or even a less than excellent title — in the bunch. He makes movies that could only exist in animation — while constantly pushing the boundaries of what these kinds of “family entertainments” can show and say. The surprising maturity evident in all of Pixar’s recent work coincides with Docter becoming the studio’s chief creative officer. That is surely not a coincidence.
Soul premieres on Disney+ on Christmas Day.
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