Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Is Dazzling and Finally Gives Us a Black Lead—But Falls Short of Greatness
The latest from Pixar filmmaker/chief creative officer Pete Docter (“Up,” “Inside Out”) tells the tale of an aspiring jazz pianist whose soul is caught in limbo.
Pete Docter is responsible for two of Pixar’s undisputed masterpieces—Monsters, Inc. and Inside Out (along with the first five minutes of Up)—so it’s reasonable to expect lofty things from the animation director, who now doubles as the studio’s chief creative officer.
The acclaimed filmmaker certainly doesn’t lack for grand ambition with his latest, Soul, a saga that plumbs existence’s big mysteries by venturing into spiritual realms both pre- and afterlife. That it doesn’t quite reach the peaks of its predecessors has much to do with the sheer strangeness of its conceit. Yet as an unconventional and daring attempt to wrestle with the profound in ways both comical and moving, it’s got a bebopping spirit that’s difficult to resist.
In both form and content, jazz is at the heart of Soul (debuting Dec. 25 on Disney+). In NYC, middle-aged Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) still dreams of being a superstar nightclub pianist but gets by via a more mundane gig teaching music to middle schoolers.
The offer of a full-time educational job sounds sweet to Joe’s concerned mom Libba (Phylicia Rashad), and it certainly promises to provide Joe with some stability. Yet when a former classmate (Questlove) offers him a fill-in spot supporting saxophone legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe jumps at the opportunity, and in an audition of free-flowing creativity that Docter depicts with swooning, in-the-zone style, he triumphantly seizes the moment.
That bliss is short-lived, however, since on his way home, an elated Joe falls into a manhole and promptly wakes up as a glowing blue blobby dude in a fedora, riding a cosmic elevator headed straight for the Great Beyond.
Panicked, he hops off this one-way ride to the hereafter and lands squarely in the Great Before, the land in which souls—all of whom resemble identical blue balls of cuteness—are assigned their personalities (insecure, narcissistic, jovial, etc.) by towering, pointy-noised counselors who uniformly go by the name Jerry and look like Picasso-esque line-drawing outlines of adults.
Amidst rolling hills and mushroom-y centers where souls are infused with their prime characteristics, Joe attempts to find a way back to Earth while evading the authorities, here personified by nit-picky soul counter Terry (Rachel House), who’s on the hunt for the rogue spirit.
Hiding out in this spiritual ecosystem, Joe assumes the identity of a deceased Swedish psychologist. For this ruse, he’s tasked with mentoring a soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who’s struggling to fill in her soul badge—think of it as a cross between a checklist and a collection of Boy Scout honors—by discovering the “spark” of inspiration that will guide her subsequent life on Earth.
This isn’t an easy assignment, because 22 is a difficult wayward soul who can’t seem to find what she’s looking for, this despite having been previously mentored by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Carl Jung, and Marie Antoinette. As voiced by Fey, she’s an amusingly ornery sprite who can’t get no satisfaction, and her rapport with Joe is as amusing as Docter’s vision of this metaphysical wonderland is striking, melding various animation techniques to conjure a light, airy, free-floating atmosphere of embryonic development.
Joe and 22’s unlikely partnership is founded on a familiar dynamic (he reasonable and exasperated; she carefree and stubborn), although their tale is not quite a routine affair. Docter melds traditional elements with truly out-there concepts and visuals, the best of which is a pirate ship steered by Moonwind (Graham Norton), a grandly-mustached spiritual guide whose corporeal counterpart in NYC turns out to be one of the film’s great gags.
About a third of the way through Soul, the narrative takes a sharp right turn and transforms into a wholly different sort of adventure; without giving too much away, let’s just say it becomes something like a Pixar variation on Freaky Friday (seasoned with some The Secret Life of Pets spice). Such a dramatic shift is enlivening, affording a new and welcome avenue for lighthearted comedy. More importantly, though, it amplifies the underlying jazziness of the entire affair, lending it an eclectic unpredictability that feels in tune with Joe’s beloved music.
As is always the case with Pixar, Soul looks phenomenal, from the expressive unreality of the Great Before to the photorealistic streets, sidewalks, and barber shops of New York City. It also conveys a potent sense of jazz’s appeal, which goes hand-in-hand with its empathetic assumption of a Black perspective.
Joe is the studio’s first Black protagonist, and the world he navigates is a distinctly Black one, even as the quest he embarks on proves to be universal in nature. Foxx voices him with an everyman charm and frustration that’s nicely juxtaposed with 22’s more rambunctious aimlessness, further contributing to the overarching diversity—of aesthetics, and tone—of the action, which is peppered with frantic race-against-time sequences that keep things from bogging down.
There’s much to admire about Soul, which is why it’s disappointing that it never quite achieves the highs it seeks. Despite its considerable imagination, bounce, and sweetness, Docter’s film is ultimately a lot less deep than it appears (and wants) to be, eventually settling on a genuine if somewhat underwhelming message about making sure to take the time to appreciate the many wonders of life that surround us on a daily basis.
Furthermore, the cleverness of the Great Before is undercut by the fact that Inside Out already anthropomorphized intangible facets of human consciousness into radiantly colorful creatures. The result is a venture whose inventive new flights of fancy are often founded on ideas and devices we’ve seen before.
Even if it feels like a minor entry in the illustrious Pixar canon, there are enough rat-a-tat-tat jokes sprinkled throughout to keep everything lively, and its desire to tackle core issues about reality and experience through a kid’s-film prism is, as with so many of its predecessors, both welcome and assured. Plus, in its virtuosic celebration of jazz—the film downright enraptured by Joe’s twinkling of the ivories alongside his talented musical compatriots—Soul feels like a movie that just might inspire the next Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, which is far more than can be said about most of its adolescent-aimed brethren.