Every once in a while, Pixar must defend their belt as the reigning champions of animation. It is not a permanent fixture. The history and canon of animation is always in flux and there are some compelling and recent challengers to the throne. Sometimes Pixar makes the most dazzling and headiest work of anyone in the game. Sometimes they make Cars (2006). Soul is a resplendent example of the former methodology, the most existential statement on life and death that Disney has ever produced. It is also a kind of statement of intent from the Emeryville studio, a reclamation of developing original properties, and a kind of chemical reaction to the problem of sequelitis.
Among Pixar films, the works of Pete Docter have an undeniable stamp of personality. Between Monsters, Inc. (2001), Up (2009), Inside Out (2015), and now Soul, his entries have produced some of the most expansive and imaginative worlds of modern animation. The difference with his movies is that they tend to occupy a couple planes of existence. Whether it be a dream factory, a house that takes on metaphorical verticality, the inside of our brains, or the world of the dead, his films have distinct and otherworldly spatial ideas, flights of fancy, and abstract ideas that could only be done in animation.
Soul is yet another triumph of ingenuity. Joe Gardener (Jamie Foxx) is a youth music teacher who has spent so long dreaming that he has forgotten how to achieve his goals. His station in life has felt like a dead-end, nothing like his lofty aspirations of becoming a concert musician. When he gets a call from a former student, saying that a beloved musician is in town, it becomes the best day of Joe’s lived experience. He goes in and gets a part playing for the city’s greatest concert hall. Everything he’s ever hoped for is suddenly true, as he leaves full of energy and renewed purpose, until he takes one wrong step, and plummets down a manhole.
Transported from the land of the living, Joe now exists in a temporal plane called The Great Before. He has become just a Soul, among so many lost Souls, all vying for a place in the line to go to Earth. When he meets the excitable and precocious 22 (Tina Fey), they decide on a different plan to get back to Earth. They can use a shortcut and try regaining entry into Joe’s old body. When they do, there’s a bit of a mix-up. 22 now occupies Joe’s body, while Joe becomes his cat. In their new realities, they return to the city, and how will the lifelong dream of the concert go, given the body swap? Joe once again becomes an instructor, this time teaching 22 about the meaning of life, and why it’s all worthwhile.
Such a deep and heady concept roots as deeply into the human psychology as anything Pixar have made. It is a kind of sister-film to Inside Out, a complimentary piece of commentary on the vastness of the human experience. It’s wonderful for many reasons, not least of which it’s artful and eccentric animation, the Pixar touch personified. Better yet, it has the year’s best score, produced in two halves. The combined talents of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross detail the wonderful prime score, the movie-score parts that uplift the film and provide a distinct identity. Meanwhile, Jon Batiste fulfills the jazzy side of the musical contract, making gorgeous and beautiful sounds that are the purest distillation of soul music. Crucially, it all clicks, feeling like a total and singular vision, that is grandiose, and able to handle the heights of its ambitions.
The Easy Critic’s Guide to Reviewing Pixar, is to always say, how wonderful they have made an animation that is equally for children and adults. However, Soul feels slightly different. It feels distinctly for the adult audience. Sure, it is drop-dead (excuse me) gorgeous and flowing in audiovisual style, and ought to delight any audience, but it’s existentially heady subtext is just for the grown-ups. In a catalogue of some of the greatest films ever animated, it’s also one of their most exuberant examples. Soul asks us directly, “is all this living really worth dying for?” It’s worth watching just to see what it has to say about that.