In its 23rd outing, Pixar throws yet another candidate into the running for best animated film of all time. “Soul” delivers on everything that Pixar is known for: masterful animation, a stellar voice cast, impeccable story structure, a mix of humor to entertain both kids and adults and tear-inducing emotions. The result is a story that can be sincerely enjoyed by viewers of all ages.
That said, “Soul” is perhaps the most adult of Pixar’s films to date, forgoing any attempt at merchandising in favor of digging deep into the human experience. The movie deals with mortality in ways that, while they might be deemed kid-friendly, do not pull any punches and delve into some deep and uncomfortable themes.
Upon seeing the trailer, I was immediately reminded of the previous Pixar film directed by Pete Doctor, “Inside Out.” While it may not be accurate to call “Soul” a spiritual sequel to “Inside Out,” there are plenty of parallels that can be drawn between the two. However, while both films are based around premises that are designed to deeply examine the human experience, “Soul” deviates significantly from “Inside Out” by centering around a much older protagonist and viewing its subject matter through a more seasoned lens.
Joe Gardner (Jaime Foxx) is very much treated as an adult in a way that most animated heroes, even older ones, are not. Despite the movie being on the shorter side, it gives the audience a good sense of Joe as someone with a full life experience in a way that makes him feel grounded and complex. This is accentuated by the reluctant unborn soul 22 (Tina Fey), who, despite having spent her entire existence in “The Great Before” is also constructed as a jaded adult rather than a naive child. To say that “Soul” is inaccessible to young viewers is an exaggeration, but it is clear that the true target audience for this movie is adults.
There are some pretty fun and interesting things that the movie does with its setting in “The Great Before,” and I was once again impressed by the simple brilliance of Pixar’s worldbuilding techniques. I was personally hoping they would take a bit more time to build out some of the nuances and areas of the process that souls go through prior to being sent to Earth, but doing so might have slowed things down so I don’t want to criticize their choice in that regard. The earthbound parts of the story center around jazz, and really embrace and take advantage of this element in creative ways. It also does an excellent job of getting the audience invested in Joe’s love of jazz, which I think is ultimately one of the things that make the story most successful.
The plot of the movie goes a little bit wayward at a couple points in ways that gave me pause, but ultimately landed the story in a really strong thematic place that was ultimately well worth the journey. The answer to the deep thematic questions that it poses is one that is perhaps expected, but is ultimately earned in a way that I was happily surprised to see the story pull off.
The visual quality of the animation was stunning. There’s nothing that flashy about it and there is no sequence where the animators seem to be showing off, but when Joe is walking around New York City… well, it looks like he’s really in New York City.
Along with the two leads, there are some other big names in the voice cast like Angela Bassett, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Graham Norton, Wes Studi, Donnell Rawlings, Daveed Diggs and Questlove, some in prominent roles others in smaller cameos.
If you are a fan of Pixar, you’ve probably already watched this by now. If there’s some reason that you haven’t, I really cannot recommend it enough. It’s sure to find a spot at or near the top of your animated movies list. It’s not something to enter lightly, and isn’t the innocent entertainment that most animated movies offer, but it will be well worth your time.