The audience has come to expect more from Pixar than your average animated movie. And once again, Pixar delivers.
One knock that you might be able to have on Pixar's latest film, "Soul," is that it is too good. Pixar continuously looks to push the boundaries on what a family film can be, mostly knocking their efforts out of the park (think "Up" or the "Toy Story" films), with just occasional whiffs ("Cars 2," "The Good Dinosaur" or "Onward" from earlier this year). In comparison to other Pixar films - which is inevitable - "Soul" seems lands in that higher Pixar tier, closely resembling 2010's "Inside Out." But spiritually, "Soul" lands closer to the existentialism presented in what might be (in this critic's opinion) their greatest film ever, 2008's "WALL-E," in that the ideas it presents are complex enough even for adults to firmly grasp, let alone a child.
Saying that "Soul" is one of the deepest, most contemplative Pixar films ever is wholly accurate. It is funny in spurts, but it is not at all a comedy, and my first reaction after watching it was that I wasn't sure kids - especially younger kids - will even be able to sit through it. "Soul" presents ideas of an afterlife that are neither religious, nor non-religious. It's a tear-jerker and in some ways it borrows from classic tales of self-reflection like Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" or even "It's A Wonderful Life." It deals with death, life and everything in-between, and it doesn't exactly approach the subjects with kids gloves like you might expect.
If nothing else, Pixar's signature has been its vast imagination...what it must be like for toys when kids aren't around, how exactly a society of bugs would operate, etc. In "Soul," souls are assigned before birth with certain personality traits, likes and dislikes, but also are given the ability to learn and add to their self-realization. A purgatory of sorts, some abstract beings oversee the process. Newly fully-formed souls jump through a portal and hurdle through space towards Earth, ready to inhabit a living, breathing body. "Expired" souls fall from the blackness, only to land on a conveyor belt that ominously leads them into a massive bright light, called "The Great Beyond."
When a soul isn't quite ready to go towards that light, they can hang around in "The Great Before," mentoring or influencing souls that haven't yet had the chance to "exist." That's where our story mainly takes place.
Joe i(voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a school music teacher and jazz lover. Music is in his veins, and has been his entire driving passion since he was a child, having been exposed to a jazz pianist by his father. It's no spoiler to say that Joe ends up in purgatory, and he is desperately not wanting to accept his fate. He weasels his way into a mentor-ship, and is tasked with soul #22 (Tina Fey), an obnoxious soul who has absolutely refused to accept her fate and who finds passion in nothing (the funniest bits in the film involve a running gag where the souls of several important historical figures like Abraham Lincoln try - and fail - to be able to influence little 22). So on one hand you have Joe, desperately wanting to return to life with unfinished business to attend to, and 22, desperately NOT wanting to return.
Most animated films do not require multiple paragraphs just to set up the premise and explain how the world works...that may be the Achilles Heel for "Soul" when it comes to success with a wide audience. But just because the film is challenging doesn't make it ineffective. I can imagine parents watching this with their kids and then having deep discussions to follow, or for a religious family, applying their beliefs to what they just saw. And even for adults, who might think they understand where the film is going and what lessons might be at the forefront, will be surprised with where "Soul" eventually arrives.
We've always been taught from a young age that it is good to be passionate, whether about a sport, an occupation, a hobby, or something like movies, music or art. "Soul" proves that too much of anything - even if it's good - might not be a good thing. And true happiness isn't achieved by simply following and focusing in on what your passionate about...heck, like 22, it doesn't make you a lost soul even if you happen to have NO passionate feelings about any one thing in particular. Instead, happiness comes from living, awareness and acceptance.
Needless to say, when compared to other animated films, "Soul" soars into a different ball park, playing a different sport altogether. And when such high expectations are placed on anything labeled as Pixar, it's quite an achievement when the film checks all the boxes you want it to and then some.
Kudos too to the musician Jon Batiste, who handles all of Joe's piano playing in the movie, and who really infuses "Soul" with soul.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy.
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Phylicia Rashad, Quest Love, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Rachel House, Angela Bassett.
Directed by Kemp Powers and Pete Docter ("Inside Out," "Up," "Monsters, Inc.").
"Soul" is available exclusively on Disney+ on Christmas Day, 2020.
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