I have been eagerly awaiting Pete Docter’s (“Inside Out,” “UP”) next directorial outing since Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” was first announced back in 2019. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can confidently categorize my life into two periods: Before watching “Soul,” and After.
In Pixar Animation Studios’ latest film, Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher who gets his big break by being invited to play at the best jazz club in New York City. However, one wrong step takes him from the city streets to The Great Before – a place beyond our plane of existence where new souls get their personalities and quirks before falling down to Earth.
Determined to get back to his life and physical body, Joe joins forces with 22, a precocious soul who has spent thousands of years avoiding the human experience. Once they find themselves back on Earth, and in teaching 22 what’s so great about living, Joe may just find the answers to some of life’s most difficult, important questions.
“Soul” features an incredibly stacked, talented voice cast: Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner; Tina Fey as 22; Graham Norton as Moonwind; Rachel House as Terry; Alice Braga as a Counselor; Richard Ayoade as a Counselor; Phylicia Rashad as Libba Gardner; Donnel Rawlings as Dez; Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson as Curley; Angela Bassett as Dorthea Williams; Daveed Diggs as Paul; Wes Studi as a Counselor; Fortune Feimster as a Counselor; Zenobia Shroff as a Counselor; and June Squibb as Gerol.
While “Soul” on the surface presents itself as an abstract take on the “Freaky Friday” body-swapping trope, it eventually blooms into an examination of the intricacies of life and the human experience, and what makes you… “you.” Pixar is no stranger to emotionally powerful stories that pull on your heartstrings, but “Soul” is in a whole different ballgame; this film asks its audience the existential, ever-unending question, “Why am I here?” and questions the metaphysical “great before” and “great beyond” of life itself. (I’m not joking when I tell you I sobbed for at least half an hour after viewing.)
The visuals in “Soul” are absolutely stunning, both from a technical standpoint and as a general viewing experience. Some sequences had me wondering if the musical performances were animated with motion capture, and the colors and textures utilized to bring this story to life are, in this writer’s opinion, Pixar’s best to-date. I could go on for ages just on the lighting of “Soul” alone.
The character designs for Joe & co. are stylized, yet avoid being a caricature of real-life humans; the astral versions of Joe and 22, along with the many Counselors of the You Seminar are abstract and malleable, with the latter being extremely Picasso-esque and simplified. Foxx and Fey shine in their voice roles, adding both humor and heart to their characters, who both stand in their own way when it comes to living life.
The score, composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails with original jazz compositions by Jon Batiste, is lush and enveloping. Reznor and Ross bring a whimsy to the world of The Great Before that’s reminiscent of Epcot’s Future World, while Batiste offers an improvisational, soulful (I know) quality to the sounds of life on Earth. The music across the entire film invites you to get lost in “the zone” and breach that plane between life and death to experience something special and so intrinsically human.
With “Soul,” Docter has crafted a masterclass in introspection under the guise of a fun buddy body-swapping romp that will inspire you to ask the big questions, charting new, existential ground for Pixar. This film is funny, heartbreaking, and yet somehow brings you all back together by the end and reminds you that, despite everything, living every moment of life to the fullest is worth every struggle and setback. It’s a fun, albeit complex watch for kids, but feels more geared to adults in its message and themes.
Starting Dec. 25, Pixar’s “Soul” will be available to stream on Disney+ for subscribers, no Premier Access purchase needed. As a result of the ongoing pandemic, “Soul” was pushed back from its original summer release date of June 19 to Nov. 20 of this year, before getting a confirmed streaming debut for Christmas Day. There are no end credit scenes, however there is a fun, quick message from one of the film’s characters once the credits finish rolling.
Check out the official trailer for the film below: