The creators at Pixar Animation Studios are masters of walking a fine line between stories that will entertain children and stories that cut deep to the core of emotional and philosophical dilemmas that only adults will get. They’ve made movies about the hardships of parenting (“Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story 3”), the persistence of grief (“Up”), the beautiful agony of longing (“Wall-E”) and much more over the years, and almost every time they’ve also managed to produce funny, beautifully designed films that appeal to all ages. But even by their standards, “Soul” felt like a gamble.
The new film from director Pete Docter is, as the title suggests, an exploration of the human soul both before and after death, and as such it’s very connected to the idea of death itself, specifically the premature kind that robs a human of their potential. It’s a heavy subject even by Pixar standards, no matter how you approach it, which meant that Docter and company had their work cut out for them in terms of making this whole affair palatable for a family audience.
As is so often the cast with Pixar, though, the work paid off. “Soul” once again feels like the total package for the studio. It’s a warm, funny, gorgeously imagined film that manages to dig deep into the things that make humans tick without ever feeling preachy or ponderous.
The adventure begins with Joe (Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist who’s making ends meet as a band teacher but dreams of getting his big break on the stage. Then, just as that break seems primed to happen, an accident sends him into the afterlife, where he fights to escape the journey to the “Great Beyond” and instead ends up in the “Great Before,” the place where souls are formed before they’re put into bodies. Hoping that if he can pose as a soul mentor long enough, he’ll be able to smuggle himself back to Earth, Joe ends up paired with Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a stubborn and famously difficult soul who’s been in the Great Before since basically the dawn of time, because she’s never found the “spark” that will complete here and grant her passage to Earth. Together they hatch a plan to get Joe back to Earth and simultaneously allow 22 to stay in the Great Before forever, but stealing a pass back to the real world isn’t as easy as it might seem.
Again, it’s worth noting just how heavy this subject matter is, and just how daring some of the worldbuilding at work in “Soul” actual turns out to be. This is a film that deals head-on with death, regret, professional disappointment, and then pivots to the actual journey of a human soul from inception to manifestation. Even among Pixar films, which are consistently among the most ambitious animated movies out there, that’s a lot to deal with. I mention this not to make you somehow brace yourself for “Soul,” or to simply commend Pixar for their ambition, but to emphasize just how well the execution of all those big ideas actually works onscreen. Docter and company lean into the strangeness of it all, creating everything from a series of soul chaperones who only exist as abstract concepts to a mentorship system that underlines 22’s strange resistance to the act of living beyond her bubble in the Great Before. There’s so much going on that it feels like it shouldn’t work, but it somehow does, and the gorgeous animation style makes it not only watchable, but embraceable.
This is of course, also a feeling that the voice cast has to imbue every frame with, and it’s there that Foxx and Fey prove their worth. Their chemistry is both undeniable and capable of immense evolution over the course of the film, whether they’re bickering, trying to work together, or unearthing real emotional weight within the story. Throw in supporting performances from the likes of Graham Norton, Rachel House, Angela Bassett, and others, and it’s a film packed with unforgettable characters.
“Soul” may not rise to the top tier of Pixar for me upon repeat viewings. It doesn’t hold the same magic in my mind that “Finding Nemo” or “Up” or even “Monsters Inc.” managed to convey. It is, however, a beautifully imagined gem of a movie about coming to terms with our place in the world, understanding the meaning we find in unlikely places, and embracing the road less traveled. For that, especially this year, I’m very grateful.
‘Soul’ is now streaming on Disney+.