PLOT: Moments after getting the chance of a lifetime, a sudden accident traps musician Joe Gardner’s SOUL in the Great Beyond, meaning he must team up with another soul to get back to Earth so he can seize the new opportunity and live out his life-long dream.
REVIEW: Pixar has spent the last 25 years releasing animated classics as if they were coming from a gumball machine on the fritz, and in that time the artists and filmmakers have mastered their craft to the point where even just a “pretty good” entry in their canon is better than most anything else on the market and manages to advance the medium in some way. Their 23rd entry, Soul, from director Pete Doctor, emblemizes that last bit in a rather beautiful fashion with perhaps its most adult-centric story, but not always in a way that can sidestep what has now become an obligatory Pixar-ness that keeps getting in the way of the movie’s own uniqueness.
By unique, I mean weird. Very weird. Soul is, even by Pixar standards, a very weird little movie. But that’s not before starting off as probably its most grounded feature yet. We’re introduced to Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a grade-school music teacher and jazz musician who’s still waiting for his one big shot…and focusing on not much else in life. Aside from his mother (Phylicia Rashad) – who wants him to give up on being a famous musician and focus on some full-time work – he doesn’t have anyone in his life. However, once things start to go his way, and he’s all set to join the band of famous jazz musician Dorothea Williams (voiced to ‘doesn’t-have-time-for-your-BS’ perfection by Angela Bassett), Joe meets his untimely and inconvenient demise and is sent to the afterlife.
Less the colorful Land of the Dead in 2017’s Coco, Doctor and the team went the opposite way, trading in vibrancy for a minimalist Great Beyond that exists in an endless, black space, wherein squishy blue souls like Joe’s walk up the thin steps to the beckoning Light and flicker out like mosquitos in a zapper. Except, Joe is in no way ready to go, and upon trying to get the hell out of Death Dodge finds himself out of place in the equally minimalist, blue/purple-hued realm where little bouncing souls are getting ready to soar down to Earth into very real humans.
This is where things begin to look and sound weird. Where past Pixar “worlds” (Inside Out, Coco, Monsters, Inc., etc.) are created with a complex array of visuals and characters, this one was purposely meant to look as close to a blank canvas as possible without being too dull. This is not some version of the afterlife with a bustling city of dead souls, but a place where fresh souls are coming to be given the personalities that will come to define whomever they become attached to. Guiding them through it all are eternal beings in the form of humanoid abstract line drawings come to “life” (all named Jerry, ft. the voices of Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga and more).
If that doesn’t sound as odd as I’m hinting at, it’s because it’s intentionally hard to describe. When in past films Pixar has gone to great artistic lengths to make imaginary worlds seem accessible, here it’s refreshingly going the other way. The look of this Great Beyond is designed to evoke a tapestry in which new souls come to be molded, not really having a firm personality of its own. There’s a peacefulness to it. But as unique a vibe as the early moments in this place come off, it’s a shame that by sticking to a simpler approach to things the ultimate result is a disappointing lack of personality to anything on screen. Characters aren’t so much characters as manifestations of concepts, and thus when Joe gets to finally go on his mission to get back to his comatose-to-near-death body, it feels like a rudimentary exercise of Pixar going through its usual motions, but without the bursts of color and design complexity.
Now, one of the problems with Soul is that it spends a good half of its runtime laying down a thick layer of exposition that digs deep into the details of how the Beyond works and how Joe will manipulate it to achieve his ultimate goal, which is to get back down to Earth. He does so with the help of Soul #22 (Tina Fey), who in no way wants to head down to Earth, and together they travel across the land to get to places Joe needs to go to get to other places. In dealing with a world and story that has about as many rules and intricacies as Inception, the adventure with Joe and 22 sadly feels far too fetch-questy (much like this year’s earlier Onward), and in spending so much time not doing much besides painting Joe as someone who cares about nothing else besides his music and getting back to it, there’s simply not much joy to be had watching it all. Fey is funny as the snarky 22, who adds some humor and charm to balance out Joe, who has neither.
The real story doesn’t begin to become engaging or have any dimension until all that exposition and needless world-building is nixed when back on the more-appealing Earth, where Joe is trapped in the body of a cat and 22 lands inside Joe. As more fetch-questing/against-the-clock antics ensue, the beauty of the real world – one Joe has let blaze by in pursuit of artistic achievement – is brought beautifully into frame. It’s in this last half where the truly beautiful moments are allowed to shine. The animation of New York, from the city streets to the jazz club, is designed with breathtaking detail. The red lights of the club beating down on Joe as he’s transported to his own world of musical rhythm, unleashing a flurry of captivating colors, is jaw-dropping. In several ways, this is Pixar’s best-looking film, and one with imagery that will forever hold a place in your movie memory bank.
Speaking of music, aside from the animation, the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with Jon Batiste writing the jazz music, Soul sounds unlike anything the studio has released before. Kaleidoscopic, techno sounds fans of the composing duo’s other work is noticeable but is given an ethereal, wondrous layering that makes the more fantastical elements sound magical. It’s the kind of score that demands to be listened to on its own so as to really take in all the complexities; it’s truly some of their best work. In the real world, Batiste’s jazz music brings the club alive, pulsating off the screen and transporting the audience just as much as it does Joe. If Soul is a massive achievement for Pixar on any level, it’s musically.
But then there are the classic Pixar themes, which come to a head with a gut-busting finale that finds Doctor and the team boldly going where past movies never have. This is the first Pixar movie (arguably, Up could also fit into this category), that feels more for the parents than it does the kids. That’s not to say the young ones won’t like it. There are plenty of funny bits and visual splendor to keep them marveling at the screen, but aside from the adventure element, there aren’t many characters (except Tina Fey) who they can relate to or come away liking. Joe’s story is all about his existential crisis to live up to his dreams and then having to come to terms with what meant looking back on his life. This is storytelling that may resonate more with parents than the kids, with not much else aside from cat antics and some funny bits to keep young ones engaged.
Engagement is exactly what I had trouble with for a large chunk of Soul. While there are some funny bits here and there (including from Rachel House as soul counter Terry, who tracks down Joe throughout the movie), some dazzling visuals and equally arresting music, when it comes to the story mechanics there’s a noticeable amount of unoriginality in Soul that stops it from being the mesmerizing experience so many small moments prove it’s capable of being. This is “pretty good” Pixar, and thus that means you will likely get more from it than you would watching most other movies. But as the bar gets higher, and as they still manage to top themselves in some respects, Soul proves that even going to the Great Beyond isn’t quite enough to make it stand all that far from the rest of the pack.