**** out of ****
(for some thematic elements and mild language)
Released: December 25, 2020 exclusively on Disney Plus
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Starring (the voice of): Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Phylicia Rashad, Quest Love, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Donnell Rawlings, Wes Studi, Daveed Diggs
Streaming exclusively on Disney Plus starting December 25, 2020
What if Your Best Life isn’t your best life?
That simple question has profound implications – especially when pondered against the YOLO paradigm of our age.
Soul doesn’t ask that question directly but cumulatively, as a whole, through the depth of its brilliant parable. It makes a strong, compelling, tender case that “your best life” is not found through self-fulfillment or actualization, and that there’s something way more important than if our dreams ever come true. It’s if our purpose does. And contrary to popular belief, the two are not the same.
If that sounds like the message of It’s A Wonderful Life, then consider Soul its contemporary heir. (Add Field of Dreams to that list, too.) Conceptually similar to that classic and kindred in its Capra-esque themes, Soul is another high watermark for Pixar Studios. It provokes the kind of philosophical and emotional resonance that sets Pixar apart from its often-pandering Hollywood competitors.
Pixar is in an elite class, and so is Soul, but this aloof high-minded auteurism. Soul is accessible popular entertainment. It’s an adult story at heart, one that contemplates the ennui of regret and a search for meaning, yet it does so in a humorous, vibrant, crowd-pleasing package of aesthetic and narrative invention. A visionary feast, Soul is first-class family fare and high art.
The only thing disappointing about Soul is the one thing out of its control: it’s the first Pixar feature to not be given a theatrical release. A casualty of the COVID pandemic, its straight-to–Disney Plus streaming may be a welcome Christmas Day gift, but the loss of Pixar’s first African-American led story from movie theaters (and the cultural conversation that platform would trigger) means something special has been taken from us.
Jamie Foxx stars as the voice of Joe Gardner, a fill-in music teacher at a New York middle school. The job is a part-time gig that pays the bills, but Gardner’s dream is to make it big as a jazz pianist. Just when it seems he’s finally been given his big break, a freak accident leads to the cruelest twist of fate: his death.
What unfolds is a voyage into the afterlife, one that has Gardner sneaking from The Great Beyond to The Great Before in a desperate attempt to return to earth, and then expands back-and-forth between the natural and supernatural realms.
It’s all remarkably conceived by co-directors Pete Docter (Inside Out, Up) and Kemp Powers (Pixar’s first black director and playwright whose most famous stage work, One Night In Miami, has been adapted to the screen and is about to have an Oscar-season run of its own).
The afterlife’s Astral guides are tall, calming, affirming spirits that all go by the name of Jerry, each wonderfully abstract in design. There’s a shorter, comically Type A outlier spirit named Terry, a scene-stealing bean-counter who’s responsible for the system’s death toll accuracy (and who goes into action when it’s not).
The Great Before and After’s systems for sending and receiving souls to-and-from earth are ingenious and (just as importantly) clearly defined, with a spiritual aura provided by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Oscar winners for The Social Network) who craft an ethereal techno that is light yet pulsating. There are numerous wonders to behold here, but then also haunting layers in darker regions, ones that give further depth to the story and its themes.
This is all starkly contrasted by the real world, which combines the most photo-real animation in Pixar’s history with distinctly stylized human designs. And here, Stephen Colbert’s late night bandleader Jon Batiste takes over from Reznor and Ross to compose a jazz palette that, along with its vim, verve, and elegance, provides an effective emotional texture of its own.
(Batiste’s physical piano playing, incidentally, serves as Gardner’s animated hands, and one wonders if he does for Gardner’s entire design, too, as Gardner and Batiste bear striking similarities.)
Ultimately, this high concept journey is one that tests Gardner’s perception of what a life fully-lived really is, and means.
A big part of that journey (and test) for Gardner’s soul is the soul that he’s paired with: 22. Numerical and nameless, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) is…well, different than the “spirit-world guide” I assumed she would be, based on the previews. Much more intriguing and complex, 22 isn’t a supporting sidekick; she has a complete (and moving) arc of her own.
Indeed, one of the richest aspects of Soul is that 22 has as much of a full journey as Gardner does, but what makes them both truly special is that their arcs are entirely the opposite of the other’s. Their needs couldn’t be more different, and yet the lesson they must learn (and truth they must accept) is exactlythe same because it is a universal truth for us all.
A half-hour in, just when a plot twist looks to derail the story into conventionality (utilizing a popular 1980s subgenre that, to avoid spoilers, I won’t specify here), the Docter-Powers-Mike Jones screenplay uses the conceit for more than plot-driven antics. It offers surprises of its own, becomes vital to the journeys of the two main characters, and doesn’t resolve as one might expect.
Pixar isn’t the only team of filmmakers to master the art of heart-rending stories, but what has made them so singular is their ability to tell those stories in truly innovative ways. Soulis yet another evolution in that ever-ascending trend.
That virtue of innovation is perhaps more true for Pete Docter than for any other director in the Pixar creative trust. With titles like Up and Inside Out to his credit, Docter now uses Soul to audaciously broach the Meaning of Life. He and Kemp Powers then deliver on that boldness, not just with artistry but humility.
Of its many insights, one of the most profound is the insight that, in some respects, we know ourselves the least – or, at least, not nearly as well as we think we do. (This idea is mostly suggested in themes rather than didactically spelled out.)
More directly, we often mistake knowing what our passions are with knowing ourselves, as if the former equates the latter. On the contrary, the former can be a distraction to the latter. Soulshows us that when our passions become our obsessions, our souls become lost. That is a profound spiritual insight – and completely counter-cultural.
Or viewed more positively (but still accurately), those passions are paths and guides to our true purpose, but they’re not a purpose or fulfillment unto themselves. Truer still, to reach our purpose, it will (at some point) require a sacrifice of those passions. The courage to do so will define us, and it will be what gives our life meaning.
Whatever you may think you were “born to do” isn’t actually what you were born to do. Who you are is not what you do. It’s not even the thing that you loveto do. What you’re passionate about isn’t your life’s fulfillment or its end. It’s simply a catalyst toward meaning. Meaning is rooted in your soul’s relationship with others – and what you’re willing to sacrifice for them.
Exuding as much joy for life as it does for pondering it, Soul has the integrity to acknowledge that the deepest spiritual truths are also the most challenging. They require meditation to be fully absorbed, accepted, and embraced.
Soul is more contemplative than sentimental. We’re moved but in different ways. It’s a movie to meditate on, and Pete Docter is a serious filmmaker. He just happens to be one devoted to the animation medium.
Docter’s not only a gifted storyteller (as so many Pixar directors are) but he’s peerless in what he’s able to imagine and then what he does with that imagination, how he makes that resonate in a motif of sensory and sentiment that touches the deepest aspects of our humanity – not merely by inspiring that humanity but by challenging it.
Here, its counter-culture message is that Your Best Life is helping others reach theirs, which inevitably requires the sacrifice of yours.
Soul, while genuinely moving, may not quite leave you in the blubbering puddle of tear-soaked waterworks that the first five minutes of Docter’s Up does or that the poignant climax of Inside Out can but, with Soul, something has become abundantly clear: whatever promise John Lasseter first showed 25 years ago when Toy Story debuted, Pete Docter has now fulfilled it.