It’s always fun to see a studio paint themselves into an inescapable corner. I don’t mean that they’ve narratively screwed up and reached convolution – I mean seeing someone so desperate to outdo their own impressive resume that they set the bar unattainably high. Such is the case with Soul, Pixar’s attempt to reach the heights of Miyazaki’s most spiritual works, like Grave of the Fireflies or Spirited Away. Pixar wants to create the Great American Animated Classic, and they bring out all the stops to do so: an all-American story about the Black experience, an existential screenplay by their best director, Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out), upped their animation to unfathomable heights, and hired Kemp Powers, one of the best playwrights currently working. And while there was little chance that the final product could ever accomplish the lofty expectations it had set for itself, the fact that Soul could even be in the conversation is a testament to the power of Pixar.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has finally gotten his big break. After years struggling to make it as a jazz pianist, and finding himself stuck in a seemingly dead-end job teaching band to a bunch of ungrateful, distracted middle-schoolers, he finally gets a chance to play backup for legendary performer Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). His dreams finally coming true, Joe rushes out the door to go celebrate…only to fall down an open manhole and die. Now a formless soul on the escalator to The Great Beyond, a panicked Joe accidentally punctures the divide between The Great Beyond and The Great Before, ending up in the land where all souls are created. Desperate for a chance to return to Earth and give his life purpose, Joe impersonates a “mentor,” an important person asked to help the new souls find their Spark and begin their own adventures on Earth. Unfortunately, Joe is paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a nihilistic entity who believes life on Earth has no value, and would rather stay in the Great Before. It’s up to Joe to show 22 the little things that make life worth living if he has any hope of getting back to Earth and become the jazz musician he’s always dreamed of being.
Soul is about many things at once, all in an attempt to examine the human experience. It’s about pursuing your dreams while being stuck in life, feeling like your life is meaningless, achieving your purpose even if those dreams don’t pan out, and finding joy in the little things in life. Despite seemingly different worldviews, Joe and 22 find themselves experiencing similar crises of confidence when it comes to their respective “lives.” For Joe, his mission – and the crux of the film – is learning about the dangerous nature of obsessive dreaming, and letting one aspect of life overwhelm all others. Joe is so determined to become a musician, he fails to find the beauty in the world around him, struggling to connect to nature, his community, or other humans. His only joy in life is his quest for a purpose, thus destroying his spark for life. Furthermore, as Soul breaks down, obsessing over one passion without flexibility or change doesn’t just distract Joe from the world around him – it leaves his life effectively meaningless. When he looks back on his life after prematurely dying, he realizes that he’s accomplished nothing, has nothing to show for it, and effectively failed at his dream exclusively. I’m going to be honest with you all, this message hit hard for me. I saw this film shortly after being laid off from my job – my first real chance to prove myself as a writer, after four long years of struggling to get a foot in the door. Seeing Joe struggle with the meaninglessness of his existence in the wake of failure, while angrily shouting at the heavens “I’m due. In fact, I’m overdue” painfully dug into my core. That’s why I appreciate this film so much, and find its message so beautiful: this film managed to help me put these setbacks into perspective, realign my passions, and get back out there, happy with whatever I can accomplish – and if the message can help me, a 26-year-old – then it is incredibly important for the kid viewers to understand.
Meanwhile, 22 encounters a similar journey, with equally resonant undertones. For 22, the idea of living and dying is so terrifying, and comes with such a heavy burden of responsibility, they would rather spend their time chilling in The Great Before than risk going to Earth and failing. 22’s fears and anxieties are reflective of those of us who are so afraid to fail, or so bitter in their nihilistic musings of the world around them (guilty on both counts), that they refuse to take any action at all, refusing to break outside of their personal bubble. It’s why a voice actor like Fey was chosen: because 22 needs a sarcastic voice to cover up insecurities from the world around, and no one can do sarcasm like Fey. 22’s journey is a fascinating one, watching an insecure, apathetic lost soul slowly become a dreamer, and the film finds little ways to add impeccable nuance to the character as well – including a subtle moment during the finale that not only calls into question the role of failed parental figures, but critiques our idolization of famous historical figures all at the same time. 22 and Joe come together to explore the beauty and purpose of life, all framed through the eyes of the Black experience. The parental relationship Joe shares with his mother (Phylicia Rashad), while universal, is absolutely and utterly a Black household. And the film’s moment of spiritual, emotional clarity comes not in the fantastical spirit world, but in a chair at the local barbershop, chatting with a loving, talented barber and the people of the community. The overall product might not be as overtly weepy as Coco, Up, or Inside Out, but it still finds ways to emotionally get you during its 100-minute runtime.
Incidentally, while Soul isn’t quite the most overtly weepy Pixar movie on the record, it does rate highly in a different category: this film is really, really funny, often in surprising ways. The script, written by Docter, Mike Jones, and especially acclaimed playwright Kemp Powers (who helped co-direct the New York sequences), is one of the strongest in Pixar’s storied history, crafting some of their most memorable jokes to date. You can tell exactly which sequences Powers had a hand in, thanks to the way the jokes land or the spiritualism touches you. The film plays with life and death in comical ways right from the jump, as there are a litany of Keaton-esque near-death fakeouts in the buildup to Joe’s inevitable demise, taunting the audience with an obvious bit of foreshadowing. Meanwhile, several of the jokes in the Great Before build off of the silly “informative” nature of Inside Out (like the Triple-Dent Gum Jingle gag), explaining aspects about life on Earth through comical bits of commentary – the Jerrys (the Immortal Beings that run the afterlife system) overdo it sending souls through the “Self-Absorption Machine.” There’s a killer joke involving the New York Knicks, as well as appearances by Pizza Rat. Meanwhile, 22’s past mentors appear in a series of well-executed bits, as the obnoxious soul takes pleasure in driving Carl Jung, Muhammad Ali, and Mother Teresa to the point of insanity – not to mention there’s a phenomenal Andrew Jackson joke that I can only imagine comes from Powers. Oh, and speaking of 22, even the casting of Tina Fey is treated as a joke – 22 is an agender, hypothetical blob, with no personality, age, or sex. As they put it, the only reason they choose to sound like a “rich, middle-aged white lady” is because they realize it has the power to annoy people. The day has come a Pixar movie has a Karen joke, folks. Now, the script isn’t perfect – there’s a shocking Act 2 twist that gets early brownie points, and mostly works, but mostly goes on just too long and gets too far off the beaten path to nail all the emotional beats its going for. But nevertheless, these missteps are minor when judged alongside the many, many jokes that stand tall as some of the funniest material in all of 2020.
And then there’s the animation. It’s almost a waste to write about Pixar’s animating abilities anymore – they’ve spent their last six films experimenting with different technologies to see just how hyper-realistic and cinematically lush they can get. But write about it I must, because my God, do they continue to outdo themselves time and time again. Soul is one of the most gorgeous films Pixar’s ever made, whether it’s in the subtle details paying homage to the great city of New York or in the vast chasms of the afterlife, reflected in shades of black, white, and blue. These are two wildly different settings, and yet the strength of the visual work here crafts it all so carefully and beautifully, the overall result is almost overwhelming. Every distinct line, haunted silhouette, or perfectly realized New York bodega feels unique, defined, and breathtaking – the film even finds the magic in a barber shop. And the visuals don’t have to carry the weight alone. The film’s music matches the visuals perfectly, and carry their own metaphorical shift as well. When on Earth and surrounded by jazz music, the score is jaunty and jovial, thanks to the jazz compositions created by Jon Batiste. These melodies bring Joe’s passion to life, and creatively differentiate life from the afterworld – an experience scored with etherworldly melancholy by Atticus Reznor and Atticus Ross (as if they know anything else). It all comes together as a spectacle of sight and sound, dazzling the viewer and bringing them into a world of melancholy, hope, and wonder.
In terms of the voice acting, this is one of Pixar’s most impressive vocal ensembles in a long time. Obviously Foxx is incredible as Joe, bringing the kind of dorky-cool everyman energy that’s become his niche in recent years. I also am fascinated with Tina Fey’s work as 22, who may be one of the studio’s most interesting characters to date. Fey’s sardonic wit and loving touches make us feel for this scorned nihilist in surprising ways, and the way Fey finds such glee in these jokes, quips, and loving elegies is incredibly lovely. Phylicia Rashad is genius casting as Joe’s mother – after all, when it doubt, hire Clair Huxtable – as is a tough-as nails Bassett as jazz legend Dorothea Williams. And I can’t stop thinking about Donnell Rawlings’ soulful, essential turn as the barber Dez, and the poignant speech he provides. But the smartest casting, far and away, is the afterlife. Understanding that the Immortal Beings in Heaven would never speak in one dialect or inflection, the multi-personed Jerry is voiced by a collection of fantastic actors from all over the world. The great Sonia Braga plays the lead Jerry, and she brings all her wisdom and compassion to the role. Similarly, Richard Ayodae delivers some of the film’s funniest lines as a monotone, sardonic version of Jerry. And I can’t forget the phenomenal Wes Studi, who doesn’t have a lot of screentime (so to speak), but brings the authority needed for the role. Graham Norton shows up as a hilariously impassioned “soul traveller,” while June Squibb makes the most of a few short lines as a recently departed soul Joe meets shortly after passing. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention Rachel House, one of my favorite working comediennes, stealing the film as Terry, the dictatorial soul-counter whose quest for approval and order cannot be matched.
Soul is a moving, touching piece of spiritual filmmaking. It feels a bit shallow to not be 100% taken with its accomplishments – thus is the downfall of being a consistently perfect studio. For even if its second act has some pacing problems, or the film fails to make you emotionally devastated the way its predecessors do, Docter and Kemp’s story of failure, passion, and finding meaning in life is utterly profound in unfathomable ways. It’s one of the year’s funniest films, one of the year’s sweetest films, and above all, one of the year’s smartest films. I don’t really feel I need to include this ending, but it must be said: see Soul, as if your life depended on it.
Soul is now streaming on Disney+