Cinephilia

Review: Soul

It’s fair to say that the cinema experience is richer, more impressive, more memorable when it takes place in an actual movie theater (as opposed to from one’s couch), something I’ve missed sorely this last year. That pang of longing hit me quite sharply as the credits rolled on Soul, Pixar’s latest animated triumph about a jazz musician with big dreams whose plans are unexpectedly upended on what might’ve just been the best day of his life. Watching the credits on a film isn’t just for cinephiles; if it’s not something you do already, I recommend starting the practice (streaming service “autoplay” buttons be damned). There’s all the people involved in making the film to acknowledge, of course, but the credits, particularly for a film as meaningful and warm as Soul, offer a moment of meditation to reflect on the story just told, the visuals just presented and what it all means. And emerging back into the bustling, bright world from a dark movie theater is a bit like the fog lifting on a dreary morning, reminding us that the world is still there, just as we left it…except entirely different.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers (who both wrote the script with Mike Jones), asks us to take that moment of meditation one way or another as it gently, cheerily—and with trademark Pixar wit and wisdom—posits that life, even when we seem to have lost our fervor for it and aren’t quite certain how to recapture it, is still the most magical adventure we’ll ever be on. A more cynical take would see the formulaic sum in the combination of its potentially predictable pieces: a pointed and poignant story about humanity couched in comedic relief bordering on silliness. It’s a tried and true recipe for the Disney-owned animation studio, sure. But that’s for good reason: it works, gloriously.

When we meet him, Joe (Jamie Foxx) is teaching jazz to a class of disengaged middle-schoolers in New York City; his music career hasn’t gone as well as expected, and he’s not at all where he (or his well-meaning if over-bearing mother (Phylicia Rashad)) thought he’d be at this point in his life. But the spark for music is as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, and when a former student reaches out to see if Joe can step in for a headliner in need of a pianist for a show that night, Joe aces the audition and gets the gig. He’s in such a state, distracted and elated, that (and this isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the trailer) he walks right into an open manhole and, after the fall, the “great beyond.” But Joe’s not having it, so in his insistence to get back to his life, he detours unexpectedly and finds himself in the “great before,” a dreamy, pastel-colored landscape where souls are formed before being sent on to their physical manifestations.

The realm is tended to by a handful of counselors (they’re all named Gerry, and voiced by the likes of Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi and Fortune Feimster) who oversee the You Seminar, the program where new souls (who only have numbers, not names yet) discover their “spark” with the help of mentors, those who’ve lived their lives and are on hand to guide the newbies. Mistaken for a mentor, Joe is matched with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul so opposed to leaving the great before and actually living life that she’s managed to scare away dozens of mentors over the years and avoid being born entirely. The two are matched together, and their odd-couple banter and good-spirited contentiousness carries the film’s middle as Joe has to figure out how to get back to life and 22 stubbornly refuses to join him.

It’s that middle portion of the film that’s perhaps its weakest, as Joe and 22 do make it back to the physical world albeit in a very roundabout way that sees them both journey to a darker enclave in the spirit world and land back in the physical world not quite as they anticipated. Younger viewers will delight in the sight gags that result, and the creative team gets credit for imagination where the plot is concerned, a series of mishaps and obstacles seemingly intent on keeping Joe from his big show. In the moment, it all feels a bit overcomplicated, but if there’s one thing Pixar does exceptionally well (and there’s not one thing, there’s many, many things), it’s world building, a talent that shines in Soul. From the vibrant, jewel-toned warmth of New York City in autumn to visualizing something as ephemeral as the great beyond and where lost souls go when they lose their “spark,” the film is richly detailed in a way that makes the animation nearly tangible. As filmmaking accomplishments go, this is perhaps only more of what we’ve come to expect from Pixar, a studio that so often delivers excellence. That they’ve done it again makes it no less welcome a gift.

It’s the final moments of Soul, however, that make it transcendent, as Joe realizes (and comes to terms with) what his future holds and 22 comes to understand just what joys can be had in a life well lived. Whatever goofiness preceding it is at last forgiven, all of it in service of a sequence so touching and life-affirming that it will take until far into the credits (and beyond) for its goodwill to wear off. Though the world at large remains out of reach from our still-isolated pandemic lives, it certainly looks a little different—a little more tender, a little more extraordinary—after emerging from Soul‘s winsome, warmhearted journey through this thing called life.

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