Director(s): Pete Docter, Kemp Powers (co-director)
Writer(s): Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.
I don’t think there has ever been a studio more consistent than Pixar. From the very beginning, back with the original Toy Story to now, Pixar has made hit after hit, and can even say they have more than one masterpiece to their name. It is incredible watching what Pixar can do, as I believe they have earned more goodwill from fans than any other studio out there. When a Pixar movie is made, it is pitched as a hit, and more often than not they hit it out of the park. They have gotten into the realm of sequels over the past decade, which is fine because they still have managed to bring, mostly, original and well put together stories, but Pixar is at their best when they are able to release a purely original film. This formula has worked for so long for Pixar and will continue to work in the future.
No one knows this formula better than Pete Docter who has been a Pixar favorite ever since the first film. The 8-time Oscar nominee and 2-time winner has written, directed, and produced some of the best films that Pixar has had to offer, even nabbing a Best Picture nomination for Up a movie he wrote and directed. So seeing that he was involved with another Pixar project immediately got me excited to see this movie. I can confidently say, however, that this film strays from the same formula they have come so fondly of and I think it is all the better for it.
Pixar is known for making cute and fun animated films to attract kids and add some thematic weight in the background to give adults something to latch on to. In this film, they took a risk, and for the first time, like it or not, they have crafted something so existential and so personal to oneself, that I could see kids turn away from this as adults yearn to it. This film dives into some pretty heavy subjects, and I know we have seen that in the past with Pixar, but this film does it differently. These subjects aren’t in the background and are the mainstay of the entire film. This isn’t a movie about finding your way home, finding love, or family. All of those subjects kids can understand and they can recognize, even at a young age, the weight of these themes.
What separates Soul from the rest of the Pixar lineup is how Pete Docter flips the script and allows the themes to drive the film. Early on into the movie, we are told what this film is. Unlike other Pixar films, Soul doesn’t shy away from this. They don’t offer up some magical land that serves in the place of death, while not mentioning death or dying, they come forward and let it be known what happened and what situation Joe (Jamie Foxx) is in. For me, this was the first instance where I knew this would be something different. Within the film, you could even see how they were trying to show you it is something different when Joe alludes to hell but doesn’t say it out of a respect for the young souls around him. Instead of playing along, one of the purgatory beings outright blurts the word, and then all of the child souls around him follow.
This may seem like a small string, but I believe it connects to a much larger spool that shows the difference in Soul from the rest of Pixar films. There is a hint of realism and believable issues. There are no talking cars, talking toys, or good dinosaurs, there are people with issues that plague their very existence. Issues about self-worth, self-loathing, depression, destructive tendencies, self-hate, I mean at one point in the film souls are literally going through an “insecure” chamber that gives young souls their personality, all of these ideas tie together into something that is much more identifiable in adults rather than children.
One of the other major indicators within the film is the lack of a villain. Well, there isn’t necessarily a lack of a villain, as the film tries to explain that sometimes the biggest villain there is, is yourself. That is what struck me hardest about this movie because there isn’t anyone to root against. You are rooting for the protagonist to fully achieve everything they set out for, but the only things that are constantly getting in their way are themselves. This was a truly eye-opening experience, that Pixar has touched on in films like Wall-E, but even then there was an enemy attempting to stop them. Here it is yourself and that is a much harder pill to swallow.
The realism of it all makes it much more empathetic with an older audience and one of the reasons the realism works so well is because of how gorgeous the animation is. I have seen beautiful hand-drawn animated films this year, but there is something about the realistic tone and feel of this movie that was so engaging. If there were ever an animated film to be nominated for cinematography, it would be this one. And I wouldn’t blame them, many of the shots look as though they were taken straight from the streets of New York. Everything from the chaos of people, to the beauty of nature, was captured in such an astoundingly surreal way that at times felt like Pixar’s first-ever live-action film.
The score also managed to be a highlight of the film as well. As Damien Chazelle has tried to teach us over the past decade, Jazz music has a life of its own. In a sense, Jazz music has a soul, and what the Nine Inch Nails duo of Reznor and Ross were able to do here was a perfect blend of Jazzy soul and heart in a way that elevated the film to even higher heights. It might be the best score that the duo has done, and they have made some pretty spectacular ones over the years.
But this doesn’t mean the movie is all a downer. Just because this film attacks important and serious subjects doesn’t mean it is a depressing film that will leave you hopeless. This is not a hopeless and meaningless film. In fact, it is the opposite and attempts to find purpose in life, even when you think you have none. It is extremely hopeful and engrossingly sympathetic. Soul toes each side of the spectrum so well and proves how life is worth living. This is one of those films that requires a difficult journey into oneself in order to find what you are meant to find. What I love about this movie though, is what you were meant to find might not be what you need to find (it’s confusing I get it). It is tough, and the film challenges you, but it is necessary and really works, and can be one of the few animated films, like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, that can really push this genre forward past being a “kids genre”. I think that this film is absolutely masterful in every way possible, and if this isn’t Pixar’s best, it is right up there with it.
Final: Pixar’s existential crisis of a film is their biggest risk, resulting in their biggest reward. Soul is a story about self-worth and longing for purpose and doesn’t hold back in showing the highs and the lows of being alive. Easily their most mature film to date. Much more geared towards adults rather than kids. Not just one of the best of the year, one of Pixar’s best overall.
Current Tomato Score: 98%
Current Metacritic: 89
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.