Pixar is such a consistent force of quality animated films, any lesser film comes across as an abject disaster. Solid films like Onward and The Good Dinosaur are seen as flops due to the standard Pixar has set. On the other side, when a film is as great as Pete Docter’s Soul, it stands as hard to judge due to inevitable comparisons between classics like Toy Story and Finding Nemo.
Soul is the story of Joe Garner (voiced by Jamie Foxx). Joe is a long-time jazz pianist without an ounce of luck. His attempts to break into the mainstream jazz clubs, and to follow in the footsteps of his jazz musician father, have been futile. Joe has had to resort to a side career as a middle school music teacher.
His mother (Phylicia Rashad) discourages him from his small side gigs and encourages him to accept the music teacher job full-time. Suddenly, one of his former students, Curley (Questlove) invites him for an audition in front of jazz legend Dorthea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe jumps at the opportunity and kills the audition. He is on cloud nine and is completely oblivious to the rest of the world; so much so that he falls down an open manhole in the middle of New York City.
Joe finds himself transformed into the embodiment of his soul. As he escapes from moving towards the “Great Beyond”, he finds himself in the “Great Before.” There, he is mistaken for a renowned child psychologist and assigned as a mentor to new soul 22 (Tina Fey). 22 has her own issues. Every previous mentor (including George Orwell, Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln) has given up on her. Joe is tasked with helping 22 find her spark to get her to earth to be born.
The film dives into deep questions about the spark of life, true purpose and enjoying your days. It also gets deeper into the what it means to be human. The subtext dives deeper into what makes a job and what makes a passion, showing that a character is much happier as a barber than he would have been as a veterinarian.
Visually, the film excels with a differing balance between the sweet understanding of the beyond and the clinical exactness of the beyond. The beyond is overseen by soul counselors voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster and Zenobia Shroff (all named Terry) who look like florescent 2D squiggle drawings. Their simplicity is exuded through sweet frankness with Braga getting a chance to shine. The beyond is overseen by an accountant, Terry (Rachel House). Terry is also a 2D squiggle drawing, but she is sharper and has to fix the error in the count that Joe has caused. House gives my favorite performance in the film.
Fey and Foxx bounce off each other like they are in the room together. Joe is a man of focus who only wants to return to earth to achieve his dream. Meanwhile, 22 wants to stay in the beforelife and will do whatever it takes to not live. Joe’s whole life is jazz and Foxx underplays his passion and exuberance. Foxx never goes over the top and restrains his comic sensibilities. Fey gets to go full-tilt as the wild card character that she is.
I can’t complete this review without mentioning the music. Jazz music is a vital part of the plot, and Jon Bastiste puts on a clinic of fun tunes. While films like La La Land can portray jazz as this out-of-time relic, the jazz in this film is portrayed as a showcase of collaboration and spontaneity. It doesn’t feel like it’s dying, it feels like it is coming alive. The non-jazz score excells as well, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross supplying the bouncy otherworldly tone to accompany the “going on a journey” narrative.
Docter proves once again that he stands among the greats of animation directors. The film takes you in unexpected directions and engulfs you with emotion at its climax. Pixar has set the bar high and continues to keep surpassing expectations.