For a large chunk of its runtime, Pixar’s latest, Soul, sets itself in a paradise called The Great Before. With its smoothed edges and relaxed pastels, it’s a rather meditative place — with a mood that in part comes from its score, a rather soothing piece of music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This nirvana is run by The Counselors, a species of all-knowing beings, and the closest we’ll ever get to gods in the film. Somehow simple and sophisticated in design, these celestial overseers look like Picasso sketches brought to animated life. Yet when they talk, it’s with the patience and gentle humor of a kindergarten teacher. In a way that’s kind of an encapsulation of the movie: For all its breathtaking stylization, this metaphysical comedy is often more Zen than zany.
Also seeing that it comes from Pixar, it’s also a warmly human place. But when we’re not there, we’re in the hustle and bustle of New York, populated by characters with expressive and slightly exaggerated features. It’s there where we find Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a jazz pianist who’s more often a middle school band teacher, who quickly will accidently step into a manhole, ending his life just as he felt it was only really beginning. We first see Joe teaching/conducting his young band class, and what a clumsy cacophony they are, but it isn’t long before Joe catches the big break he’s been waiting for his whole career: a chance to play in the ensemble of a revered saxophonist (Angela Bassett). His dreams have finally come to fruition! That is until he takes that fateful fall and turns into a sketchily outlined blob: his untethered soul, still gracing a hat and glasses, riding an escalator to a premature heaven.
In one aspect, Soul does pioneer something: It’s the first Pixar movie to center on a black character, though he spends more than half of the brisk one-hundred minute runtime outside of his body. I say this because the film can feel a little secondhand at times, like a Pixar redux. While I’m grateful for a break from continuous sequels on their part, it’s in the film’s lite existential musings, gentle humor, and its occasional bursts of visual invention, where Soul comes across like an appealing and pleasant melding of past glories — the afterlife adventures of an aspiring musician (à la Coco), connected to the conceptual ambition of director Pete Docter’s previous film, Inside Out (Docter here, though, is joined by co-writer-and-director Kemp Powers). Unready to step into the light of The Great Beyond — visualized stunningly as a giant white smudge on a black never-ending space — Joe ends up jumping into The Great Before, where new souls are assigned personalities. You might think that passions and personality traits form after birth, but Soul asserts otherwise. Everyone, we learn, must acquire a “badge” before descending into a human body — in part by finding their “spark,” essentially, the one thing they’ll be most passionate about in life. Yet it’s still another one of Pixar’s busy bureaucratic other worlds. The script has no shortage of rules and principles to explain, at one point via a literal training video: There’s a vast desert called The Astral Plane, where the spiritually enlightened or creatively invigorated can project their consciousness, and a Hall of You that’s basically a museum of memories and past accomplishments, providing inspiration for young souls. As you can tell, it’s all very literal.
While all that expository information might sound like Inside Out (again), that film, frankly, had a sharper clash of pathologies — and a more fulfilled dramatic arc. Soon mistaken for one of the famous “mentors” that help the young souls find their “spark,” Joe ends up paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a human-in-training who’s spent thousands of years half-heartedly searching for her spark, frustrating all the past mentors. Why has she given up on life before she’s lived it? Soul is a little shaky on that point. But, why 22 hasn’t yet found her personality is pretty clear: Her character is pretty half-formed, even with Fey delivering shades of mischief, wonder and sarcasm. Joe is much more defined, with Foxx striking notes of regret and longing into him.
Throughout, the animation is continually lovely, whether we’re in The Great Before or the barbershops and jazz clubs. What’s especially astonishing are the animated lighting techniques: Just as the studio previously collaborated with cinematographer Roger Deakins, this time the studio is consulting with the great Bradford Young, who’s textured glory pays dividends. Elsewhere, Docter flirts with some more radical imagery, especially during Joe’s brief psychedelic plummet from one world to the next. It’s just that one might wish that the filmmaker had strived for more narrative inspiration in the unpredictable, free-form music Joe loves. The film’s overall structure is slightly idiosyncratic, though: The movie is nearly half over when it returns to Earth, resetting into a confined body-swap comedy. As always, Pixar’s sincere interest in asking big questions about our place in the world is very admirable. If Inside Out landed in some truly profound grounds, imparting a rich emotional wisdom to all ages, the life lesson here is touching yet still shopworn: Joe, who can’t get over the feeling that he didn’t achieve enough, has to learn to appreciate the journey instead of obsessing over the destination — to see the beauty in the small, everyday stuff he took for granted. That might be good tip for anyone looking for it within Soul’s musings on life and death. It’s overflowing, like a bright portal into a new reality, with gorgeous details, even if they don’t always add to a deeper, fuller whole. At times openly abstract, Soul is a contemplative, metaphysical farce filled with generosity, reminding us how the ordinary can be extraordinary.
Soul is available to stream on Disney+