It seems like every year Pixar comes out with a new film that reaffirms the studio’s status as one of the world’s best storytellers. 2020, despite all of its shortcomings, was no exception. Soul is lively, colorful, and offers an important reminder to those of us who feel stuck in quarantine: to live every moment of our lives and sometimes the best things in life are hiding in plain sight.
Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher who loves Jazz. Sure, teaching is great, but Joe had something a little different in mind for his life; he wants to play with a band just like his father, much to the dismay of his mother who wants to see him settle down and find a stable job. A former student of Joe’s invites him to come tryout for lead pianist of the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Joe nails the audition and seems to have finally found the chance to breakout and pursue his dreams of playing jazz on stage. However, in a freak accident on his way home, Joe dies. Now in the soul realm, Joe must escape going to the “great beyond” and return to Earth in time for his gig, with the help of one obstinate soul who is quite comfortable where they are.
Director Pete Doctor is responsible for some of Pixar’s greatest hits, including Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out. Soul looks poised to join the list. The film is vibrant both on Earth and on the soul realm. The surreal imagery of souls standing on a conveyor taking them to the afterlife is astounding. Soul is also a testament to how far the powers of animation have come. The amount of detail of each setting and object is quite impressive; the only thing keeping Pixar movies looking any more realistic these days are the cartoonish figures they attribute to their characters. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is enough to spark wonder and the jazz compositions from Jon Batiste should satisfy even those who aren’t fans of the music genre.
Apart from the film’s visuals and style, Soul tells an ambitious story that will almost certainly gravitate to its adult viewers. Docter, along with co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers (whose play One Night in Miami is being adapted to screen and releasing on Amazon Prime the 15th), look to tackle some serious questions and themes. Soul is centered around a man going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. As Joe advances through the story, he begins to find some solace in discovering the true meaning of life…or at least a vague notion of what that may be. My interpretation of the film’s message is it wants us to appreciate the world around us and be grateful for those in our lives. Soul doesn’t want us to allow career dreams and pursuits to dictate our happiness or fulfillment. During a time of heightened distress, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of these things.
Soul is also a film in conversation with some of Pixar’s other more recent movies. Like Inside Out, Soul takes an inside look, literally, in its exploration of things beyond scientific explanation. Inside Out examined our feelings, and Soul is a tour guide to that piece of us that makes us who we are. Like Coco, Soul plays with the idea of an afterlife and prominently features music. To rank the three, I’d say Soul is more compelling than Inside Out but doesn’t match the emotional resonance of Coco.
Soul is another winner for Pixar. The film will make you laugh, possibly shed a few tears, and I think there’s something for everyone to relate to.