Pixar has been all over the place since the release of Cars. Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles: all hits or beloved classics. But once you veer into 2006 with Cars, things get murkier.
It’s not like Pixar lost its spark entirely. The year after they released the fan-favorite Ratatouille, followed by Wall-E: the latter of which is arguably one of their best films. But since the point of no return with Cars, they’ve been an up and down studio, marred by sometimes inelegant sequels and franchise-chasing. Soul reminds me of why I fell in love with Pixar in the first place.
It’s really hard to talk about Soul’s narrative in detail without spoiling it: and you really should go in blind if at all possible. The gist is that Joe (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music instructor, is unsatisfied with his life. He should have made it big as a jazz musician! But now he’s “stuck” being a teacher. Once he gets his full-time notice at the start of the film (which should be a joyous occasion), a feeling of unfulfillment washes over him.
Very early on, after a quick and unexpected death (!), he meets his literal kindred spirit, “22,” (Tiny Fey) a soul that should have made its way into the Earth to begin its life: but is instead wandering aimlessly in “The Great Before.” It’s here that Soul really starts to open up, touching all sorts of topics like what it means to be alive, and what makes you…well, you.
What I really love about Soul is how pointed it is. A trend I’ve noticed in Pixar films in the last decade or so is that they are unbelievably busy and move from place to place to place or character to character to character. Inside Out, one of Pixar’s darlings, hits critical mass for me when it comes to this principle: its message is muddled when it constantly shifts between the emotional world and the real one, between Riley and any number of unimportant side characters.
But with Soul, Joe and 22 are the film; the literal soul of the story. We see both realms (the metaphysical and the physical) through their eyes. Joe has to acclimate to The Great Before, 22 deals with the trials and tribulations of Earth. It’s moving, poignant, and adorable. That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast is just there, because everyone impacts the heart of Soul in their own way and leaves their mark.
Soul also has a unique feel to it, with its jazz-influenced soundtrack and thematic movements echoed throughout. This is the Pixar I want to see more often. The hungry studio that’s creating all-new worlds that completely draw you in and give you something you haven’t quite seen before. Soul delivers on many of these fronts (sometimes overly comically so) with a fairly unpredictable plot that bobs and weaves like an interpretative jam session.
Go see Soul. Even if you’ve lost faith in Pixar over the years, it’ll remind you why animation is one of the most adaptive and beautiful mediums we have. If you still love Pixar, you’re going to see it anyway: and you’ll probably enjoy it.