Have you been wondering just how you could possibly end 2020 on any sort of positive note? The year has sucked. It’s sucked on so many levels it’s hard to imagine it sucking any more than it already did. It’s sucked for me, for sure. From having a kid at home 24/7 to losing the time I’d like to dedicate to writing at Flixist (you can count my reviews on one hand) to not seeing nearly as many movies as I would have liked (still haven’t watched Tenet) to contracting COVID myself, it’s just been one hell of a year. There just didn’t seem to be a good way to end it. Nothing that could wrap this giant ball of suck up and remind us that better days are ahead.
Enter Pixar and their best director working, Pete Doctor.
Director: Pet Doctor
Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Disney+)
Soul continues Doctor’s trend of tackling complex emotional and philosophical issues by couching them into a children’s film, delivering movies that tell not just a story but unpack the human condition in ways that “serious” drama struggles to at the best of times. This is obviously most prominent in his last picture, Inside Out, but is present throughout his Pixar directorial efforts with Monster’s Inc. looking at why we fear what we fear and Up delivering a heartfelt message about love. Soul, probably more prominently than any of his other films, looks at what makes us… us.
Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a struggling jazz musician who is looking for his big break while teaching as a part-time music teacher. Then he gets it. One of his former students is playing with a famous jazz musician who needs a new pianist and offers him an audition that he nails. The only problem is, right after doing that he dies, his soul getting thrust into the hereafter. However, Joe doesn’t want to go and escapes, falling accidentally into the area where new souls are prepared for their life on earth. He’s mistaken for a mentor — a soul who helps new souls find their purpose — and is tasked with helping Number 22 (Tina Fey) find her purpose. 22 doesn’t want to find her purpose, however, and the two begin hatching a plan to return Joe to earth instead of 22 going.
Much like Inside Out, Soul looks to unpack the human condition by personifying it and adding a visual layer. The afterlife (or beforelife in the case of the new souls) is visually stunning, with a blend of adorable little new souls running around and abstract supervisors running everything (all named Jerry or Terry). It is simply a delight to watch on screen. More importantly, however, it allows the film to talk about complex, human ideas in simple ways that dig deep into the core of meaning. While the metaphors never quite reach the innate quality of Inside Out, sometimes being a bit too on the nose, the emotional punch can still be found.
There’s plenty of the Pixar magic floating around and the film easily keeps up Pixar’s general track record of never making a bad Pixar movie. The comedic moments hit well and the story one that builds a world wonderfully. As I’ve discussed before, you have to grade Pixar films on a different level than other animated features as none of them are truly bad. Soul is in the upper half for sure and receives an even greater boost thanks to the timeliness of its message of living life to its fullest. However, it does sometimes fall into cliche, a trap that most Pixar movies amazingly avoid. There are moments in the film that feel a bit more contrived than the rest of the film and that’s where the movie is the weakest.
That being said, it’s hard not to cry watching the film when its emotional moments hit. You won’t be curled up on the floor like the first 10 minutes of Up or calling your parent to tell them you love them through burry eyes like after watching Inside Out, but by the end of the movie, you’ll feel a stirring. That might be OK because Soul is about a bit bigger picture than those two films. Its emotional message is not one of emotion but one of self and discovery. Joe’s journey, which just uniquely enough to not be totally predictable, is one that speaks more to our desires in life than our emotions about it.
What is truly magical about Soul, however, is that despite it being a film that was written and mostly made before the pandemic (it was delayed multiple times before landing on Disney+), it is, almost to a tee, the perfect film to bring us to the end of the year. While there is no direct discussion of the pandemic, obviously, Joe and 22’s discovery of what makes life worth living is something that’s being unpacked by all of us around the world as many of our distractions are removed. It’s dive into what gives us meaning and why — what a soul truly is — feels like it was tailored made for the life we’re living now and the glimmer of hope we have to start living a better one once this is all over. I hate to give unwarranted credit to Disney, who probably just wanted to get it off their books, but I’m glad they decided to release this now instead of holding off for theaters to re-open.
There is simply something special about a Pixar film and Soul has all that same magic. Is it Pixar’s best? No. I’m not as emotionally speechless as I was after, say, Inside Out. However, it is the perfect film at the perfect time and for that, it can get no better.