In his fourth Pixar feature, director Pete Docter grapples with matters of life and death to interrogate definitions of earthly success. Soul is certainly head and shoulders above the studio’s directionless last effort, Onward, but its lofty aspirations never reach the transcendence of top-tier Pixar.
Joe (Jamie Foxx) is an aspiring jazz musician, stuck teaching music to apathetic high schoolers. His mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), laments what she sees as her son’s pipe dream, but Joe knows he was born to play. On the day he finally gets his big break – an offer to play with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – comic tragedy befalls Joe, meeting his end at the bottom of an open manhole. If he ever wants to get back to life, he’s going to have to rethink what he wants to get out of it.
Soul is notable for finally being the first Pixar film to feature a black lead (and majority black cast), while its jazz theme was informed by the work of Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington. The film’s opening sequence is the most visually abstract the studio has ever dared to go, while the afterlife scenes were influenced as much by the sight of jazz as the sound. It goes without saying that the animation and production standards are as high as ever. As a purely aesthetic experience, Soul is simply gorgeous.
What lets the film down somewhat is an issue that has dogged much of the studio’s recent middling efforts, namely an inert narrative and a wishy-washy message that ultimately doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. Death is a Pixar thematic mainstay, the studio seemingly having sharpened the art of tear-jerking to razor-sharp precision. But here, the theme feels surprisingly lightweight with few lasting consequences. The Dali-esque sea of lost souls – in which the misshapen spirits of people who have lost their passion roam an endless void – looks incredible, but has little consequence and as a result, not much emotional heft.
The ultimate lesson that Joe needs to learn – that the attainment of one single goal can’t define a ‘good’ life and is unlikely to bring fulfilment – is pretty predictable from the start. The consequence of this is we spend the film waiting for Joe to catch up rather than coming along with him on the journey. It’s also harder to connect to him because he has so few human connections himself. There’s some attempt to build a strained relationship with his mother, but as with many Pixar films, she’s relegated to the margins and doesn’t get to be part of the film’s core emotional journey. Tina Fey is great as belligerent new soul ’22’, occupying much of the film in the body of the cat, but she’s fundamentally a foil to Joe’s arc.
What this all adds up to is a gorgeous, very enjoyable and somewhat well-intentioned effort. Soul is a far cry from the insipid Onward or the diminishing returns of the Cars series, and its well worth the time of anyone looking for a bit of unchallenging cinematic pleasure. Nevertheless, though it may aspire to the likes of Inside Out or Coco, Soul never quite reaches their heights.