Pixar’s films have long had a way of connecting us to resonant truths through comedic whimsy. Adding itself to this long list of essential animated viewing is Soul. The new film from Disney and Pixar premiered on Christmas Day on Disney+ and, like their other 2020 film, Onward, is yet another indicator of the quality of Pixar’s output as a studio.
Free on Disney+ (unlike the Mulan premiere from earlier this year), Soul follows Joe (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged jazz musician and band teacher who falls into a coma just as he’s about to catch his big break. As his soul detaches from his body, he finds himself in The Great Beyond and The Great Before, places for souls at the end and beginning of their journeys through life.
Desperate to get back to Earth and see his life through, Joe teams up with a troubled, cynical soul that has been living in The Great Before for thousands of years, Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Tasked with giving her the inspiration she needs to finally embark on her journey to Earth, Joe hopes to also game the system and find a way back to his body again.
It’s a deeply complex story for an animated studio whose work is generally aimed at being accessible to children and, like Inside Out, is a film that has to spend a lot of time setting the table before it can get down to the actual storytelling of Soul.
Luckily the time investment to come to terms with this universe is well worth the effort. Co-written and co-directed by longtime Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter (Kemp Powers and Mike Jones join him as co-director and co-writer respectively), Soul is an effort powered by many years of modern animated classics like Monsters Inc., Up and Inside Out.
It shows in the way that the story unfolds, with Joe trying to connect 22 to the world through the things he loves, a stubborn mistake made by many a parent. Instead, however, 22 finds herself connecting to the simpler aspects of life, enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of the world instead. Naturally, this means she’s teaching Joe as much as he’s teaching her which, cliche that it is, works wonderfully for Soul.
In a time where many of us are struggling to remain connected to the world, both Joe and 22 are instantly relatable characters. It’s likely even that future viewers will believe that this movie was written with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind but, actually, the film was being developed as early as 2016.
This dichotomy speaks to the universal human truths and experiences at the heart of Soul and its characters. Joe connects to life only through music and is disconnected from many people in his life due to this single-minded pursuit. 22, meanwhile, has frustrated genius souls for millenia by not connecting to their passions. Underneath her cynical disposition, though, is someone who’s been afraid to connect for so long that she does so pretty much by accident.
This makes a holiday season where many of us are feeling lost the perfect time for a movie like Soul. A lot of folks will find their hearts (and souls) refilled by this film, a genuinely important and welcome gift that Soul gives during this tough time.
Aside from the easily relatable characters and original storytelling, though, Soul is also powered by a behind the scenes dream team that pushes it to the next level. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have produced some of the best film scores of the last decade, add their melancholic flavor to the film’s music, aided along the way by Joe Batiste’s soulful jazz compositions.
The music is one of Soul‘s trump cards. As a movie about reconnecting with the world, the film often speaks to us only through the universal language of music. If the animation weren’t so gorgeous, viewers might genuinely find themselves just closing their eyes, like Joe, and vibing with the soothing tunes and livening beats of the movie.
Jamie Foxx infuses Joe with so much empathetic relatability that you could swear you’ve known him your whole life. He’s the English teacher that got you hooked on reading or the Drama teacher who made you want to be an actor. We’ve all known a Joe or two in our life and it makes Jamie Foxx’s nuanced take on him all the more effective.
Meanwhile Tina Fey, as 22, does most of the comedic heavy lifting for Soul. Rolling her eyes and making jokes about just about everything she comes into contact with, Fey is still able to peel back her apathetic, gleefully destructive demeanor to show a soul that no one has ever tried to connect with on her level.
The two headliners are helped along by many memorable performances by the likes of Angela Bassett, Graham Norton and Rachel Howse. Howse, in particular, is wonderful, infusing the film’s antagonist, Terry, with the kind of likeable, diligent (yet pain-in-the-ass), spirit that has seen us through connections with many of life’s best administrators, accountants, librarians and secretaries.
Though Soul does possess a singular cliche, mentioned above, the film is surprisingly original otherwise. There’s no love story here, far less madcap shenanigans than most modern animated films (Pixar and Disney’s work included) and a shocking amount of downtime and daily meandering. Amazingly, this chilled out tone actually works as a strength for Soul, giving it a voice and feeling which is entirely unique to it.
In the end, Soul is the successful sum of many working parts that join together and power it to the forefront of Pixar’s library, among the very best films the studio has ever concocted. A welcome gift this holiday season, Soul is an absolute must-watch for anyone with a Disney+ subscription.