Pixar has begun to walk a fine line between hard-hitting emotional fables and emotional manipulation, but they’ve always managed to stay on the right side of the fence. This year was meant to be a banger from them, with two lighthearted fantasy tales and this, a film with more echoes of Powell & Pressburger than trolls and dragons. Soul was meant to be their summer blockbuster (a VERY odd choice) but it feels right for a Christmas when so many are questioning purpose and position. Soul, directed by Pete Doctor, dropped at 3am this morning and it’s a beautifully contemplative film, one beyond what I was expecting.
Soul follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher with dreams of making it as a jazz pianist. When his former student, Curley (Questlove), scores him a chance to play with legendary jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) he sees a bright future. It’s so bright that he doesn’t see where he’s going and falls down a manhole, his soul disconnecting from his body and beginning to descend to The Great Beyond as his body lies in a coma at the hospital. When he rebels against walking into the light he falls into The Great Before, a place where souls that have not yet gone to be born on Earth are prepped for their personalities. Mistaken for a mentor soul, the constructs of the fabric of reality (I’m not kidding, this gets wild) assign him to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul that has existed for millenia without being able to find her “spark.” Their adventure leads to realizations and evolution for them both, taking the Pixar standard to a place that it hasn’t taken me in quite some time.
This is somehow less visually imaginative than the previous couple of major Pixar films (Inside Out & Coco are the most important of the last few years in my opinion) and yet somehow more impressive on a technical level. While I love the character designs in most of their previous films, the imagery in Soul FEELS like the tactile environments we know. I’ve spent very little time in New York City, but smells and emotions and feelings came back to me watching this. Coupling that with the most expressive facial design they’ve had to date made for something to get lost in, that feels purposeful.
“Purposeful” is probably the right word to use over and over again when talking about the pathos in Doctor’s latest film. As I get older I’ve grown both more susceptible and more suspicious of emotionally manipulative filmmaking, giving the side-eye to nostalgia bait while weeping at the buttons it pushes in my heart. Pixar always has a valid point to make with their films, from growing up to pushing the limits of imagination. Soul is asking us to look at our lives and understand the difference between passions and purposes, between the things that make us who we are and the things that make us feel alive. It’s fitting that this discussion takes place between the dead and the unborn, two souls that are lost in timeless discussions about the excitements of feeling alive and living to the fullest.
This year I’ve been blessed with two scores by Trent Reznore and Atticus Ross (of Nine Inch Nails fame), one for David Fincher’s Mank and one for Soul. I’m truly enjoying this deviation from their moody, electronic soundscapes to experience their attempts to delve into the more tactile. It is a nice juxtaposition from the imagery of Doctor’s film, feeling tactile as we watch souls slip in and out of animation styles and walking through surrealistic landscapes and turning into more fanciful tinglings on the streets of Harlem.
Pixar’s Soul is a beautifully melancholy reminder of experiencing life to its fullest, one that I find necessary this Christmas as so many focus on what we don’t have right now. I opened a few presents this morning alongside the people in my home, but perhaps the best gift was the reminder that your life isn’t just purposeful…it can be passionate as well.
Soul is currently streaming on Disney+.