Pixar has made movies that have ventured into the afterlife, opened on the blighted remnants of a postapocalyptic Earth, and regarded the immensity of death through the eyes of a set of beloved anthropomorphic toys. But with Soul, which hits Disney+ on Christmas Day, the animation giant takes on what has to be its most unlikely subject matter yet for what’s technically a children’s film: the dilemma of whether to keep chasing gig-economy dreams or to take an uninspiring staff job that comes with some very handy health benefits. Admittedly, the character facing this decision — a jazz pianist named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who’s been working as a part-time band teacher while waiting on a music career that never seems to materialize — does spend a good stretch of the runtime as a talking cat. Still, if Pixar has, in recent years, fallen into a rhythm of alternating unpredictable originals with safer sequels to the proven hits, Soul plays not just like one of the former, but like the accumulation of a decade’s worth of odd ideas. It’s whimsical and bold and also easier to admire in the abstract than to get deeply emotionally invested in, though it features a late-breaking burst of beauty that will soften the hardest of hearts.
Soul was directed by Pete Docter, with One Night In Miami’s Kemp Powers credited as a co-director as well as a writer, and in some ways it’s a companion piece to Docter’s Inside Out. Where that 2015 film explored the terrain of the mind of an isolated 11-year-old girl, Soul does the same for the inner life of a stalled-out middle-age man, though it takes a less direct route getting there. Joe, fresh from an unfulfilling stint instructing middle schoolers, gets the news that he’s being offered a full-time position. His mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad), who runs a tailor shop and who’s been not-so-subtly urging her son to get on with his life, is delighted. But Joe cares more about the call he gets from a former student, Curly (Questlove), about a chance to audition for famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) — a terrifying, thrilling opportunity that he, despite some initial fanboyish fumbles, aces. And it’s right after Joe sails out of the club, having been booked to play with Williams’s quartet that night, that he walks into an open manhole, dies, and finds himself transformed into an adorable little ghost blob en route to the afterlife.
Most people would be at least a little curious upon finding themselves in this situation, but so single-minded is Joe that he can only think about getting back for the gig that might be his long-awaited break. He retreats from the light and somehow makes his way to a part of the film’s nondenominational hereafter, where new souls are readied to go off and live lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he’s paired up with a troublemaker named 22 (Tina Fey) who has no interest in being sent down to Earth. The two make a deal to what they hope will be their mutual advantage, though instead it leads to the talking cat. Soul definitely resist easy summaries and all guesses as to where it’s going as you watch it. There’s a definite satisfaction to how expectation-defying the film is, with its hairpin twists and turns, though some of the surprises stem from the way that Soul can’t entirely figure out how its two worlds mesh together thematically. The soft-focus passion-versus-purpose generalizations to be found in the Great Before never quite line up with the realities of Joe’s life and his blinkered certainty that happiness can only come with the professional achievements he’s always longed for — that everything will finally click into place.
Maybe it’s that his issues feel less easily explained than the soul-sculpting process suggests. Maybe it’s just that Soul is a midlife-crisis story that’s pretending otherwise. Rather than feel like a kids’ movie reaching for grander ideas, it ultimately comes across as trying to obscure how resolutely grown-up the sentiments at its core really are — first by hurrying off to a spiritual plane filled with soft shapes and chipper bureaucracy, somewhere between a preschool and a self-help seminar, and later by settling into some animal slapstick. It is, at least, unfailingly neat to look at, especially in how it differentiates its bustling New York streetscapes and the pastel twilight of the Great Before, which consists more of soothing textures than of forms. That delineation features some of Pixar’s most interesting visuals since the 2010 short Day & Night, which combined 2-D and 3-D animation. The afterlife (or is that the beforelife?) is intriguingly abstract, down to the counselors (voiced by, among others, Richard Ayoade and Alice Braga) and counters (Rachel House) who are flat beings moving around spaces that are not flat.
The regular life, meanwhile, looks about as good as it ever has in the company’s history, courtesy of a balance in which the characters are allowed to remain slightly stylized while the autumnal backdrops are warmly lit and rich with near-tangible detail and longing. It’s their vibrancy that allows a late montage of memories, recent and distant, to be as beautifully poignant as it is, a summary of a life that, despite its owner’s doubts, absolutely had meaning. It may not summon the expected Pixar deluge of tears, but it is, in its own quiet way, devastating.
Disney and Pixar’s Soul is available to stream on Disney+ beginning on December 25.
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