Pixar is impressively consistent, creating personal and innovative stories just about every time they make a movie, except for the Cars series. It is easy then to perhaps underappreciate how clever they are at tackling existential themes while still entertaining the whole family. While not every film is a masterwork, this year's Onward, many are in the animation canon of greats. Soul, their newest efforts, may touch upon a few things they have explored before but it is chock full of the stuff that makes them great.
Soul is definitely a winner and major Pixar, directed by Pete Docter who gave us Up and Inside Out. It is co-directed by Kemp Powers whose play has been turned into the film One Night in Miami this year. Together they bring to life a densely packed and slightly bonkers story from a screenplay by Docter, Powers and Mike Jones.
Jazz and Black-American culture are woven into the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher with dreams of playing jazz piano. He is good at teaching and his students are generally engaged but when the chance to audition for famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) comes his way, Joe sees a chance to live his dream. The audition goes great, with a beautiful sequence as Joe gets in the zone and transports himself with his piano playing. On the way back from the audition, Joe manages to avoid a series of cartoonish dangers like falling bricks and banana peel only to fall through an open sewer hole to his death.
He soon finds himself on a giant travelator headed to "the light." Panicked, Joe runs from the light and ends up in the Great Before, a place where unborn souls get their personality traits before birth. This is where comparisons may come to Inside Out but Soul does something very different with this idea. The Great Before is run by Jerrys, who look like Picasso paintings. Joe is lost but is soon assigned to help 22 (Tina Fey) find her spark to fill out her personality. 22 has tried everything but hasn't found the thing that makes her want to live, to be born.
Soul features one of the best soundtracks of the year. John Batiste handles all the jazz music of the real world. He brings a wonderful energy to the jazz numbers and the animators visualize Joe's playing with incredible accuracy. In a genius move, Pixar abandons Michael Giacchino for the Great Before's soundscape and brings in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. They create a wonderfully otherworldly soundscape that contrasts beautifully with Batiste's jazz.
Soul's impact didn't hit me at first. It did take me some time to truly appreciate the film's complex theology. This didn't take away from the emotional punch the film lands in true Pixar manner. Soul is a deep, rich film and in years will likely join the ranks among Pixar's best.