Full disclosure: I’m not what you would call the biggest Pixar fan. To be clear it’s no fault of their own. It’s just that I’ve grown picky when it comes to animation meaning I may not be the best judge of their films or the “genre” in general. I’m not saying there aren’t animated features I love, but I tend to be a little more critical than most and I rarely go into an animated film with a ton of excitement.
Maybe that’s why Pixar’s latest “Soul” was such a welcomed surprise. I didn’t go in with especially high expectations yet it only took a few early scenes for the movie to get its hooks in me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps in the road. Within ten minutes the story takes a less compelling detour, leaving earth for a more cartoony setting where we learn the basic rules of the film’s central story. But soon “Soul” regains its deeply human pulse, planting us back in the vivid, bustling, and character-rich New York City.
Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a substitute middle school band teacher whose only dream is to become a jazz pianist. When he’s offered a full-time position at the school his cynical mother (Phylicia Rashad) is thrilled at the prospect of her son having a steady job. But Joe is reluctant, fearing it may hurt his stalled jazz musician aspirations. Then he gets what could be his big break.
Joe is asked to fill in on piano for popular jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett). Just like that he believes his life finally has meaning. And just like that he loses it all. While walking home after a brilliant audition an impervious Joe unknowingly dodges all sorts of big city hazards only to plunge down an open manhole.
He wakes up as a baby-blue ethereal blob caught in a dark void between life and death where souls are quietly ushered to the bright light glowing in the distance. Realizing the finality of entering the Great Beyond, a frantic Joe scurries away eventually falling into a place called the Great Before where unborn souls are given their personalities before being sent to earth. Following me so far? I hope so because “Soul” is just getting started.
Through a series of exhausting events Joe ends up mentoring a rebellious soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has no desire to be born. The two form a fun yet combustible duo who (thankfully) find themselves back on earth, inescapably tethered via a comic mishap. It’s here that “Soul” really finds its rhythm and begins doing what Pixar films are know for – balancing spirited animated hijinks with thoughtful themes that can resonate with all ages.
“Soul” comes from Peter Docter whose studio resume includes “Monsters, Inc.”, “Up”, and “Inside Out”. But he’s joined by co-director and second-in-command Kemp Powers who also wrote the script for Regina King’s upcoming directorial debut “One Night in Miami”. The impressive pair share writing credits with Mike Jones and together they create a story that hits its marks a lot more than it misses. Meanwhile Pixar’s team of animators turn in some of their best work, specifically during the New York scenes where their lighting, crisp motions, and stunning attention to detail really shines.
“Soul” is a heartfelt story about second chances and finding real purpose in your life. It’s about obsessions, mortality, and finding the true qualities that make each of us tick. The film also marks Pixar’s first feature led predominantly by black characters. “Soul” may not always reach it’s incredibly high ambitions, but I appreciate its willingness to reach high. And with its endearing characters, uplifting positivity, and snappy jazz tunes, it’s hard not to leave feeling warm and alive. “Soul” opens December 25th on Disney +.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS