Most people believe they were “born” to do something. And the latest Pixar movie directed by Pete Docter, who has repeatedly brought lively, imaginative worlds to the screen with the emotionally-fantastical Inside Out and the generational adventure Up, sets out to prove that this maxim is at least partly true. Docter and his creative partners at Pixar just might’ve been born to create some of the finest animated films of our time.
Co-directed and co-written by Kemp Power (One Night in Miami), this new entry in the beloved Pixar canon is Soul, a fitting title for its metaphysical subject matter. But we humbly begin the film with our main protagonist, Joe, voiced by a high-energy, but world-weary Jamie Foxx. Joe is a middle school band teacher who has long dreamed to make a professional career out of his deep passion for jazz music, which has yet to take off.
Just when the stars finally seem to align, and Joe secures the gateway gig of his dreams at a New York City jazz club, he faces a pitfall, quite literally. This is where the prologue for Soul ends, with Joe’s actual soul separating from his body and threatening to take him to the “Great Beyond” before he feels like it’s really his time to go.
If this all sounds quite heavy for even a Pixar film, which is of course being marketed to children along with adults, you don’t really have to worry about Soul tripping too many parental mines in terms of death, religion, or other troublesome, existential rabbit holes. Though you certainly can investigate these topics if you so choose. Instead, Soul mostly makes light of the universe’s biggest questions, using a healthy dose of humor and clever world building to ward off the dread this subject matter can sometimes conjure.
While in the realm of metaphysical reality, Joe is eventually introduced to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has not yet been born because they have no interest in the human world, which I’m sure a lot of people watching this film in 2020 might find relatable. For centuries, famous historical figures like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and even Abraham Lincoln have tried being a “mentor” to 22, who needs to gain a “spark” that will allow them entry into the real world, where they can live a life worth living. So Joe sees his window of opportunity in perhaps being a fake mentor to 22, in the hopes that he can hitch a ride back to Earth through a back door or two.
In similar fashion to Inside Out, one of Soul‘s most striking achievements is its seemingly effortless blending of two vastly different animation styles. The world of souls and our modern-day New York couldn’t look or feel more different, yet the animators and art directors at Pixar have once again pulled off a seamless, believable combination of aesthetic. They contrast, of course, seeing as the metaphysical realm is delightfully simple and colorful, while New York is its usual muted self, filled with tremendous detail, noise, and chaos. The way these visual themes combine with the uniting character of music itself, a harmony of sound and sense, is just one of many wonderful parallels at play in this well-constructed story about finding your purpose, even in the messiness of life.
And that is where Soul truly outshines even its most glaring flaws when it comes to story elements involving body tropes not worth spoiling. Ultimately, the message of Soul is what sticks out the most about it, as it’s uniquely refreshing to see questions like these aimed toward children, while still leaving enough room for productive conversation and, fittingly, introspection. The idea that every single person has just one purpose in life is an oversimplification we see far too often espoused in pop culture, where singular, obsessive talents are can be overly celebrated in favor of a life rich in balance. Anyone who tells you Pixar only makes movies for children these days has another thing coming.
It’s also inspiring to see Pixar succeed with a film that casts people of color and centers its story around Black characters, especially considering that most of Pixar’s films have been made up of predominantly white casts. Most animated films are content to focus almost exclusively on children protagonists, but Soul stars a middle-aged Black music teacher. In other animated films just this past year, we’ve seen magical, outlandish adventures set against Top 40 pop music with instantly-dated pop culture jokes. Soul opts for a contained set of worlds and timeless humor set against jazz and contemporary R&B, with a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s easy to see why Pixar films, particularly from Pete Docter and his collaborators, continue to be so warmly welcomed by film lovers of all ages — kids, teenagers, parents, grandparents, you name them. They’re some of the only animated films being made today that treat kids like adults, while still managing to appeal to the kid in all of us.