Reviewed by Dustin Mason
Director Pete Docter is so enamored with the human mind ever since 2015’s incredible Inside Out that a follow up was almost required. While that film was concerned with human emotions, Soul covers the existential side of things. It’s gorgeously animated and oh so nice. It’s just so nice. You wouldn’t believe how nice a movie about a guy going through a midlife crisis would be. It’s not all silly lamps and to infinity and beyond anymore; it’s jazz and falling into potholes, and then you’re in the great beyond. It’s Pixar’s Defending Your Life.
The usual opening Disney theme is played, but this time it’s being played by a middle school band taught by Joe Gardner (voiced by a delightful Jamie Foxx). Joe wants to be a big shot jazz pianist and play with his former student (Questlove) and the great saxophonist Dorothea (Angela Bassett). Once he nails the audition and is told to come back later that night, Joe ends up falling down a manhole and ends up in Purgatory. Alright, they don’t call it that but come on. Joe isn’t ready to go to The Great Beyond, so he inexplicably escapes and ends up as a mentor to a seemingly sociopathic soul 22 (voiced by the always funny Tina Fey). Together, Joe and 22 have to figure out how to get Joe back to Earth, and plenty of nutty stuff happens, without spoiling.
The first two acts are so well-paced, and the humor (while never hilarious) was cute in a non-obnoxious way. When The Knicks and Tetris are featured in well-written jokes, I’ll be a fan. Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade were excellent in their small roles as well. The script is so introspective and maybe a little too deep for its targeted audience, but it’s undoubtedly poignant. Do I think the ultimate message of staying content with your life, when you could improve it, might ring a little cynical? Maybe. But this was consistently sweet the entire way through. What Pixar keeps improving is its animation. God, Soul looked impeccable. The humans look so real now. Donnell Rawlings from Chappelle’s Show voices a barber that has better animation than any human in a 90’s or 2000’s Pixar film. The moody piano work and signature synths were astounding and drove the movie for me. Whoever decided to hire Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to compose a Pixar film is a maniac, and I love it. They were the SOUL of the film, you could say. From Social Network to Mid90s to Patriots Day to now Mank and Soul this year, Reznor and Ross really can score any movie they want.
The last act delves into typical melodrama we’re used to in films like this, where the conflict really isn’t that big of a deal, but everybody on-screen thinks it is. Unfortunately, the way it ended felt a little slight; the message was ultimately too simple and a tad cynical, but its intentions were in the right place for sure. It’s also not a film, despite how good it really is, that I think kids will obsess over like Toy Story or Finding Nemo. It isn’t as funny or nearly as tear-inducing as their previous films, but for 2020, Soul was the right kind of animated film. One about introspection and not really knowing where your life is going. Gee, thanks Pixar. In all seriousness, Soul was a delightful, albeit short, departure from what moviegoers are accustomed to. And that’s always cool to see.