Pixar’s latest is a celebration of humanity and finding happiness in a confusing world
There’s a space between chasing a dream and finding your calling that Pixar’s latest film, Soul, spends most of its runtime occupying. Rather, that’s where the film lives and breathes. In the same way that we watched Woody figure out his purpose in a world without Andy, Remy finding the perfect conduit for his culinary dreams, Mike Wazowski becoming the best monster he can be even if he isn’t the scariest, or Carl going on the adventure of a lifetime, Soul is another Pixar classic about the enlightenment that comes with realizing your worth and your place in the world. It also grapples with the heavy emotional and existential themes that give Inside Out and Coco their resonance. What I’m trying to say is that Soul is a quintessential Pixar film, one that writer-director Pete Docter has been working toward for two decades. It’s Pixar’s best film of the last decade and arguably one of its flat out best works.
It’s about a teacher, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who is still chasing his ever-dwindling dream of being a professional jazz musician. On the day he catches a break and lands a gig playing piano alongside Dorothea (Angela Bassett), he has an accident that puts him in metaphysical limbo. Joe’s soul leaves his body and heads for the Great Beyond, where he meets a young soul without a personality, 22 (Tina Fey). The two head back to Earth so Joe can reclaim his body and 22 can learn about life. I swear the movie is less confusing than that description.
Right from the jump, Soul just feels different. No, it’s not because this is the first Pixar film to be led by Black characters, although the different perspective is very welcome. Docter, co-writer/director Kemp Powers, and co-writer Mike Jones have created something that feels alive from its first frame. We know Joe, someone like Joe, or we are Joe ourselves. Probably a mix of all three. Pixar has built its legacy on showing us new worlds we can only imagine. Soul shows us the world we all know. Buoyed by friends and family, burdened by responsibility, Joe navigates his day to day so he can chase dreams at night. At least, that’s the feeling we get. Soul takes place over a single day, but it’s clear Joe has been in this routine for a while.
When he returns to Earth with 22, suddenly everything is differently familiar. Back on the ground, the two take on corporeal form with a twist: 22 inhabits Joe’s body and Joe ends up as a cat (again, I promise it all makes sense within the film). As Joe and 22 work their way around New York, Joe finds himself in his day job role as he teaches 22 about life on Earth. There are plenty of jokes about 22 experiencing things like pizza or walking for the first time, but the important thing is that Joe gets to literally see himself from the outside. Joe’s been so focused on his music that he’s kind of lost sight of everything else. A visit from a student and a trip to the barbershop open up Joe’s perspective, allowing him to think beyond himself in a way he clearly hasn’t in a long time. The more Joe learns about the people around him, the more he begins to understand his place in the world. In a movie about the importance of human connection, Joe’s conversation with his barber (Donnell Rawlings) may be its most insightful moment.
One recurring idea that stood out to me is the notion that we are born to do something. It’s really easy to say that about people whose success garners a lot of attention. What about the everyday people who are no less great at something, but don’t get the attention or opportunities they deserve? It seems to me that being born to do a particular thing implies a belief in fate or destiny. But so often we deny what could be called fate when what we perceive it to be taking us away from our desired path. Soul isn’t directly about fate versus free will, but it’s something I couldn’t get away from and it made the film a richer experience for me. I can extend that sentiment to nearly everything about Soul, really. The visuals are transcendent, particularly in the scenes in the Great Beyond. The writing is sharp and observant. I don’t know if I have the words to describe Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, but it conveys a sense of ethereal wonderment and I can’t get it out of my head.
It made me think about an old friend of mine named David. Of all my musically gifted friends, he was probably the most gifted. He got on well with everyone and was a delight to be around. He worked random jobs while playing in bands and working on his producing skills. We weren’t super close, but one of the remarkable things about David was that he seemed to always have time for everyone. Once in college we spent an afternoon trying to put JAY Z acapella verses over beats David had made. For however much I enjoy listening to music, I can’t tell you the first thing about playing an instrument or producing a song. We spent a few hours at it and made almost no progress. David, somehow, didn’t lose patience with me. He kept trying to make it make sense until we decided to do something else. I look back at that day, some 15-plus years ago, and wonder if David would go on to teach music if he weren’t able to play his own music professionally. I feel like he’d be happy either way. That’s just conjecture, unfortunately, as David passed away a few years ago. I don’t bring this up to be a downer, but as a testament to the film’s power. It lives in a melancholic place and the film’s empathy is so palpable that it’s easy to get lost in yourself. Anyway, Soul is a remarkable film.
Soul lands on Disney+ on Christmas Day