“Soul,” 2020, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers – 4/5 Stars
Since the release of “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar has pushed the limits of what storytelling in animation can do for children and families. From “Up” to “WALL-E” to the third installment in the “Toy Story” franchise, Pixar’s films have covered surprisingly mature themes: death and grief, environmentalism, the bittersweetness of growing up. “Soul” continues this trend, tackling what is probably Pixar’s most complex subject matter yet: what it means to be alive. In its roughly 100-minute runtime, “Soul” does not disappoint — with stunning visuals and clever dialogue, though it is sometimes weighed down by the larger, more abstract concepts it attempts to portray.
The story follows Joe Gardner — played by Jamie Foxx — a middle school band teacher and aspiring musician of his own. The day an incredible opportunity falls into Gardner’s lap to play with famous musician Dorothea Williams — played by Angela Bassett — and he meets a terrible fate: he dies. Upon his death, he finds himself in the You Seminar, a place where souls are given their personalities and traits before they come into being. There, he meets Jerry — voiced by both Richard Ayoade and Alice Braga — who oversees the You Seminar, and Terry — voiced by Graham Norton — who makes sure all souls are in the right place. Both these characters are brought to life with their unique Picasso-style animation and the creative ways that they move throughout their metaphysical space. Soon after, Gardner also meets 22 — played by Tina Fey — a soul who has been too stubborn to find her “spark,” the movie’s word for the one thing that makes us feel alive. For some, this spark is playing a sport, for others, it is painting. For Gardner, it is playing jazz music. Gardner spends most of the movie conflating his supposed spark with his purpose, but, as the movie teaches us, the two are not the same.
In the adventure that follows, while on the run from Terry, Gardner and 22 set out to return Gardner’s soul to his body. And with some funny cat-involved antics along the way, the pair learn the real value of being alive: just living. It is a simple message, but one we, as human beings, often forget. The message is not remotely ham-fisted either; even adult viewers will likely go on the same journey of discovery that Gardner does, watching and learning from 22 as they express childlike wonder and find the small joys in life. All of this is accompanied by a fantastic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and is animated to perfection. The funny and touching writing is augmented by stellar performances by Fey and Foxx, whose voices both have a large presence but never clash.
One has to ask, though, if this was a little too large of an undertaking for a movie made for children. To address ideas of afterlife, death, purpose and to simplify them to such extreme extents, even if done in a fantastically creative fashion, arguably does them a disservice. This does not detract from the story, but it is worth wondering what a slightly more complex version of the script would have looked like.
“Soul” is most certainly a return to form for Pixar and a refreshing new concept to come out of the ever-monotonous Disney machine. Overall, “Soul” is a fun family-friendly film with a beautiful core message that might even cause audiences to shed a tear or two.