Disney and Pixar have long been a powerhouse duo cranking out hit after hit for well over two decades now. But after a while a formula set in. We began to expect the quality and storytelling that Pixar had pioneered in animation making each new offering, no matter how good, feel just a little less impressive even if their films continued to show every other animation studio how it’s done. Pixar is still the defining example of animated filmmaking as an artform, but I don’t remember ever seeing a movie that exemplifies their artistic genius and penchant for deep storytelling like “Soul”. One of many movies sidelined by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, “Soul” maintained its Christmas release date but moved to Disney+ where it proceeded to wow audiences from nearly every angle. Leading up to the release reviewers who got an early look at the film were calling it one of, if not THE best Pixar movie and one of the best films of 2020. I’m here to tell you without a shadow of a doubt, they are absolutely correct.
“Soul” stars Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, a jazz pianist teaching middle school music who regrets a life where he failed to fulfill his dreams as a full-time gig musician. When Joe gets a chance at his big break playing for a renounced jazz songstress named Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) he believes his life is finally going his way until a freak accident sends him to the Great Beyond. There he attempts to escape back to his earthly body but finds himself instead in the Great Before, a state of pre-existence, where he becomes a mentor to a rebellious soul numbered 22 (Tina Fey). Together the duo embark on a journey through both the Earthly world and the Great Before where they discover the true beauty that life presents. In my opinion “Soul” is possibly Pixar’s most ambitious story to date taking on the metaphysical in a very mature and yet somehow still innocent manner. The ideas of death, purpose, and even whether or not destiny exists are all explored in a nearly 2-hour showcase of true cinematic beauty and existentialism.
I found “Soul” to be a bit complicated for a children’s film honestly, but that’s not a bad thing. Its themes and worldbuilding demand it be revisited to fully grasp its concepts making it very rewatchable, but what’s most impressive is that “Soul” manages to simplify the ideas of the afterlife and pre-life without watering down these concepts to feel too mature or immature. Pixar has explored deeply human ideas before such as with “Inside Out” which examined the complexity of human emotions. “Soul” is about examining the meaning of life and what makes life worth living. Where do passions come from? Are our personalities ingrained or learned? Can our special spark that gives us passion evolve over time or does destiny truly exist and are we failures if we don’t meet those goals? These are powerful ideas for both kids and adults to understand and “Soul” provides a fast-paced, imaginative and unapologetically honest examination of these ideas without sugarcoating realities. It also balances its deep themes with some great comedic timing to lighten up the mood. Life doesn’t always go the way we want, but that doesn’t make us failures. Sometimes it takes us longer to find our purpose than others. There’s also beauty in learning about the journey other people took to get to their spark. These are all such simple concepts, explored many times in film, but “Soul” bring them all together in a awe-inspiring exploration of the beauty that is being human and experiencing life.
The animation and voice acting only add to the film’s quality. The Great Before is one of the most beautiful worlds that Pixar has ever produced while the detail put into the cityscape of the Earthly plane and the character designs is impressive even by Pixar standards. I dare say that the amount of detail put into this movie, the amount of care it must have taken to get everything just right, redefines the idea of perfection and realism in animation. The voicework by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and others is also spot on and is some of the most engaging any Pixar film has ever given us. I found myself hanging on every word from the complicated explanations of the rules of the Great Before to the simple discussions of life between Fey and Foxx’s characters. No line feels wasted, no moment feels like padding. Everything feels like it belongs and serves to help drive the story forward while adding and extra bit of levity and sincerity to “Soul’s” narrative. Even the quick cutaways to 22 interacting with the souls of previous iconic human beings serves a purpose as it not only breaks up the tension and drama of the story but it also shows how it took a simple, seemingly unimportant person and the experience of life itself to help 22 understand the simple beauty of just existing.
“Soul” is, of course, also layered with great music with plenty of catchy and toe-tapping jazz that not only drives home how talented Joe is as a musician but also creates great atmosphere for the film. It’s not just the jazz that caught my ear though. There’s a completely different musical style incorporated into the adventures in the Great Before which gives it this mythical feel like we have indeed been transported into another realm. It’s so fast paced and yet so calming. What I loved most though is that even though both styles sound so different, they also blend very well possessing the same kind of emotional resonance. Overall the soundtrack is just beautiful and never overshadows the action, rather complimenting it and even playing a huge part in building the worlds we spend nearly two hours exploring. We’ve seen Pixar incorporate music into the mix before through the blend of emotional rollercoasters that was “Inside Out’s” soundtrack and in “Coco” where music was literally part of the story, but again like the animation I feel like the music in this film and the use of different styles that somehow compliment each other so well despite being so different pushes the envelope in animation as well as non-visual storytelling and worldbuilding in the medium as a whole.
I would say I have a hard time believing that Pixar will ever be able to one-up itself after this film, but “Soul” itself is a fine example of how the studio continuously breaks the mold when it comes to animation. Visually stunning with infectious music, great voice work and a story that resonates on so many levels for both the child and adult alike, “Soul” may possibly be the best Pixar film to date in a long line of cinematic masterpieces. There’s so much more this movie offers that I didn’t have time to explore here, but I can’t stress enough how much I loved this movie and the mark it left of me as a person after watching it. Those emotional impacts that force you to challenge your own perspective and reexamine life from a different point of view are what movies are all about. Somehow, or maybe not surprisingly, it took an animated film from the best animation studio out there to find the perfect balance of entertainment, humor, honestly, and insight to present everything that is truly wonderful about the art of animation, filmmaking, storytelling, and about life as a whole. “Soul” really is a true piece of cinematic art.