Over the past 25 years, Pixar has distinguished itself as something unique within the animation industry. Like most studios, they make films that are clearly kid-friendly, but they also fill their stories with big ideas, wisdom, and other things that can only be fully understood by adults who have spent a long time learning those lessons.
The fusion of those two sides has never been more evident than in their latest film, Soul. The simple title has a double meaning, the first referring to the passion which Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) puts into his playing of jazz music. A middle school band teacher, he’s just about to finally get his big break playing in a band with saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) when … he falls in an open manhole and dies.
Joe’s soul is transported to the entrance of what’s called “The Great Beyond,” but unwilling to accept his fate, he manages to escape to “The Great Before,” where new souls are waiting to be attached to babies on Earth. Mistaken for a mentor for the new souls, he’s paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a troublesome soul who has managed to evade going to Earth for centuries.
The two go on an adventure that is best experienced rather than explained, but it involves many unexpected steps that include run-ins with a corner sign-twirler, a therapy cat, Joe’s mom Libba (Phylicia Rashad), and multiple stewards of The Great Before who all go by the name of Jerry.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, the film adheres to Pixar’s unique storytelling ability while striking out in bold new ways. For the Jerrys (and one soul accountant named Terry), they employ a minimalist animation style that is much different than anything they’ve done before. For an extended period of time, Fey’s voice comes out of Foxx’s character, giving a fun disconnect between visuals and audio.
Speaking of fun, they have lots of it in the storytelling, especially when Joe is in The Great Before. They show personalities being given to souls before birth — a concept that may be rooted in science — but instead of pleasant categories, we’re shown souls sorted into ones like aloof, insecure, and self-absorbed. "22" is an instantly funny name for a soul, since it demonstrates she’s been there for a long time, an idea they reinforce by referencing previous mentors like Copernicus, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Teresa.
It’s notable that Joe is Black — the first such lead character in Pixar’s history — and they integrate elements of his life experience well without being heavy-handed, including his love of jazz, going to the barbershop, and his relationship with the women in his mom’s shop. At the same time, Joe’s race is not what defines him as a person, a subtle but pointed distinction made by the filmmakers.
In fact, it’s the shared trait of being human that is at the film’s core. We all get caught up in our individual lives, often focusing on our own issues or aspirations instead of noticing the world at large. Soul reminds us that beauty can be found in innumerable small things, and that if we concentrate too much on ourselves, we risk missing everything that makes life great.
The voice performances are good but not overly affecting. Foxx, Fey, Bassett, and Rashad all do well in their roles, but it’s difficult to say another actor couldn’t have done just as well. The one standout is Graham Norton, the British talk show host, who plays the aforementioned sign twirler with a panache that goes beyond the look of his character.
At this point in their history, it’s easy to take Pixar’s excellence for granted. But it would be doing a disservice to everyone involved with Soul to say what they’ve done is simple. Nearly everything about the film is memorable and thought-provoking, a rare thing no matter what type of story is being told.
Soul premieres on Disney+ on December 25.