Let’s play. That’s the message at the heart of Soul, Pixar’s latest piece of animated introspection that goes just deep enough. Play is a literal and familiar term when it comes to the film’s literal and familiar subject matter—music—and an abstract one when it comes to everything else. Soul is about finding play in a world of work, a world where ideas of capitalistic, achievement-oriented purpose and practical usefulness have overtaken joy felt just for the hell of it. Through this broad theme of stopping to smell the street vendors, Soul allows writer/directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers to apply Pixar’s most impressive visual feats yet to a highly specific story. The result is that magic kind of all-ages film that only appreciates as you get older.
Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a stifled, unfulfilled jazz pianist and music teacher in a gloriously realized New York City. His head-down worldview wobbles between the unintentional cruelty of his loving mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) insistence on getting a day job and the ingrained self-loathing of a famous, internalized phrase: “Those who can’t do, teach.” His kids play, sure, but they all suck—like middle schoolers are wont to do—aside from one potential all-star that just needs a little encouragement. Joe’s too tired, worn-down, and self-absorbed to offer it. He wants to be a star, damn it. A real musician, like his dad. Right when he gets his chance, oops, he dies.
Tough break, right? Joe certainly thinks so. His journey towards The Great Beyond—shown here as a sort of immense celestial bug zapper—ends up going backwards to The Great Before, where circumstances and his own stubbornness set him up with the universe’s least pleasant soul, 22 (Tina Fey). He cons his way into being their mentor (ironic, of course, for the unfulfilled teacher), assigned to help the famously difficult soul find their “spark” so that they can go down to Earth and live a life. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that they actually help each other.
Soul frontloads its comedy, with the transition from NYC to The Great Before not only playing on Joe’s foreshadowed demise, but mimicking its visuals by shifting its comedy from realistic slapstick in life—with deft physics and an often hilarious sense of detail—to abstract silliness in the oddball afterlife. The Great Before’s wiggly staffers (all named Jerry or Terry) are accompanied by a fittingly bouncy synth from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Their score doesn’t disappoint as one of the year’s best. From cartoonish Mickey Mousing to the grandiose awe of the afterlife to jazz from Jon Batiste, it’s a well-rounded stunner. And it’s fitting that Pixar’s most graspingly ethereal film melds with music—especially a style as alternatively mathematical and organic as jazz. Joe’s initial jaunt through death blends these as well, finding sharp fractals and waveforms among the soft, round souls.
In fact, every technical aspect of the film is eyebrow-raisingly, “how did they do THAT”-inducingly impressive. Its designs are lovely (yes, the Black people actually look like Black people; textures are so realistic that the slight caricaturization of its characters’ bodies and faces looks somehow more fitting) and that’s not just for the people—the introduction of jazz star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and her saxophone is one of the most impressive pieces of animated lighting I’ve ever seen. Her skin has a warm glisten that cinematographers like Ava Berkofsky and Bradford Young work their tails off to achieve, while every golden curve and key of her sax glistens and refracts with a sultry allure almost as enchanting as the sounds coming out of it.
New York is also shown in its most attractive light, with its percussive hustle and bustle all color and excitement. It’s the best possible version of itself, a hub of culture zipping by with potential human connection literally brushing your shoulder as you speed walk down the sidewalk. It’s here that Heaven Can Wait while Joe and 22 come back to learn about appreciating life. Their Soul-searching finds plenty of insightful depth that’s both accessible to the younger set and hard-hitting for the rest of us.
Anyone can relate to dreaming a dream (and having a naysayer say nay to it) and wanting to be the best at something. They could be aspiring writers, jazz musicians, or both—take it from this lapsed trumpeter who worshipped at the altar of Miles and Chet—but recognizing that that devotion (or obsession) has a close proximity to single-mindedness is a mature observation that the film makes through images and objects. It’s easy to get weepy as the main revelation unfurls. Empathy and self-love develop as Joe’s ultimate discovery becomes clear: Viewing anything other than total all-star achievement as a failed, wasted life is a harmful delusion. Soul’s not a damnation of ambition, but a benediction of the everyday struggle. A destructively potent montage, summing life and its mundane pleasures even more beautifully and poignantly than Up, is one of Pixar’s finest yet.
The film’s sole derivative moments occur because of a weird body-swap choice (why do animated movies always feel the need to kick Black people out of their bodies?) that, while allowing for character arcs to progress, feels like a notable backslide in quality from the rest of the film’s plotting. This silly, stupid story choice—seriously, I can’t emphasize enough how badly it sucks hearing the voice of Fey (of all people) coming out of Joe’s body while Foxx is relegated to an animal—tries to undermine some of the film’s best scenes…and yet it’s very hard to quash the quality on display. Foxx (the consummate straight man) and Fey (supposed to be annoying) are spot-on, but it’s their surroundings that help transcend Soul’s worst decisions. A barbershop scene in particular comes along during this rocky phase and works its character-centric, sharply scripted charms so thoroughly that even its tropey transgressions seem worth forgiving.
Far more grounded and effective than something like Inside Out, with a solid humanity to balance its existential questions and psychedelic weirdness (I didn’t even mention the cthulhu tentacles of lost souls or the LSD pirate ship), Soul stuffs its playful optimism into a simple message and delivers it with colorful, endearing beauty. Joe figures it out. We will too. It might take time and practice to learn to appreciate what we’ve got, but Soul reminds us how much is out there with every florid frame.
Directors: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Writers: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton
Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Disney+)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.