Directed by Pete Docter
Written by Mike Jones, Kemp Powers, and Pete Docter
I don't know if Soul is a "return to form" for Pixar, exactly, though it is close enough that if you wanted to call it that, I wouldn't object to the description. It is, after all, such an extremely "Pixar cartoon": an exploration of middle-aged angst (like the Toy Storys and Incredibleses before it), that makes a very hard pratfall into a hidden magical world governed by its own rules (like so many Pixar movies before it I refuse to even begin to list them), and all done up in the studio's trademarked photorealistic style (like almost every Pixar movie since the last twenty minutes of Monsters University back in 2013). There is a distinction on this last count, however, for Soul seems to be taking a conscious step back from the flintier aspects of Pixar's photorealism. Firstly, when Soul is photorealistic, it's not for the sake of uncanny grit, let alone for its own sake; instead, it's with the overriding goal of generating a mood of contemplation and appreciation for all the colors and textures of the places, people, and feelings its photorealism captures. Soul, therefore, is maybe the first Pixar film since Monsters U. that concerns itself with what their big computers should do rather than just what they could do. Secondly, at least half of it takes place in an abstracted fantasy realm that outright denies photorealism, going out of its way to flatten its characters into lavender neon lines and prismatic blue smudges, as opposed to, say, Onward, which was as much about how Pixar elves have blood vessels under their skin as it was anything else.
It is, as a result of this and more, the best Pixar original since, I suppose, WALL-E, fully twelve years ago (yeah... I've rewatched Coco), and while I am not absolutely in love with it, and while you needn't go too far back to find a Pixar sequel that's better, Soul definitely rekindles some enthusiasm for the studio as something more than just a well-tooled factory for extending franchises.
Soul, then, is the tale of the last day in the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who—of course—once had dreams bigger than managing a bunch of pubescents who, for the most part, aren't even interested in what he's teaching them. Those ambitions haven't completely faded, however, so even on the day that he finally gets a full-time position, he's willing to throw it away on an unlikely shot at becoming the great jazz pianist he's certain he was always meant to be. Thus, when Joe gets a break from a former student, and is invited to come play with one of his idols, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), he's sure that this must be destiny opening the door for him. Which is perhaps the reason why one comic cartoon death after another manifests to strike Joe down as he obliviously makes his way home. It's the last one, an open manhole, that gets him.
Awaking on a cosmic conveyor belt headed into "the Great Beyond," Joe remains determined to get back—a difficult task, considering he's now just a blue puff, identifiable mostly just by his hat and glasses, evidently such a part of his self-conception that even his astral projection retains them—and, screaming and panicking, he makes his way off the conveyor and falls into another abyss. This time he lands in "the Great Before," the place where souls are safekept and their personalities developed, before they're shot into bodies down on Earth. Accepted under false pretenses as a mentor, he is assigned to the most intractable entity to have ever been created, Soul Number 22 (Tina Fey; I'm not sure that her improbably low number is meant to suggest anything, but she's clearly been around a very long time). The whole point of the Great Before is to ready the souls for existence—most notably giving them their "spark," the passion that will drive them—but 22 has figured out from first principles that while life in the Great Before might be purgatorial, life on Earth seems like straight-up hell.* She's initially reluctant when Joe hatches a clever scheme to take her Earth pass, so that he can get back to his body, but after he explains that this means she'll get to spend the rest of her eternity literally feeling nothing, she eagerly embraces the idea of cheating both the afterlife and the beforelife in a single stroke.
So if it's an extremely Pixar movie, it's also an extremely Pete Docter movie, specifically. It's also pretty easily my personal favorite of Docter's works. (I mean, sure, Up is an all-time great short film, but I don't know what they were thinking when they paired it with that weird feature with the slow kid, the zeppelin, and the talking dog.) Anyhow, Soul remains driven by Docter's customary preoccupations: being the one who first confirmed the Pixar formula back in Monsters Inc., Soul finds Docter for the second time in a row creating a magical world explicitly intended to explore existence by way of a bunch of anthropomorphized metaphysical concepts who execute their functions within a benign, if somewhat dysfunctional, mystical bureaucracy. The good news is that for all Soul is doing an Inside Out, it never gets so tangled up in its own rules that it blows up its own third act. Meanwhile, it upgrades its antecedents, since instead of Herman's Head, Soul is inspired by the likes of A Matter of Life and Death, though I think the most obvious touchstone here is Defending Your Life, at least in terms of Soul's cosmology and message, since Defending Your Life is about earning reincarnation, and Soul is about the loveliness of just being incarnated in the first place.
The bad news is I don't think it's as shattering as Inside Out sometimes is, which some will hold automatically makes Inside Out a better movie; the main reason is that Soul isn't focused on a child's overwhelming depression. It has its moments and I definitely did cry, but I don't know, perhaps it sees Docter evolving beyond just building machines to make you cry—that is, it comes by its feelings more honorably. Other than a real cop-out of a denouement (a needless cop-out too, since a significantly more-acceptable cop-out was standing right there!), it's a satisfyingly mature piece of family entertainment, essentially coming to several cheerily nihilistic conclusions that won't surprise anyone who's ever heard that line about gathering rosebuds, but does emphasize the inevitability of death to an unusual degree for a family cartoon, while also elaborating on the very-unkids-movie message of Monsters University—in life, sometimes you actually might never be good enough to achieve your dreams—by noting that you might be good enough after all, and you still might not get there. Besides, even if you did, maybe it still wouldn't fill the void you tried to fill with your passion, and in the meantime your passion's blinded you, and even made you a worse person along the way. It pursues these threads with a thoroughgoing niceness, and centers its conflict almost exclusively upon its protagonists' different ways of detaching themselves from bodied existence—while gently criticizing both—and other than a ticking clock scenario with exceedingly low stakes (will Joe... play jazz to a crowd of twenty?), roots its emotions solely in a preference for being alive rather than being dead, or, alternatively, being never born.
It gets there with a mid-film twist (Soul is a fine piece of two-act structure, and barely has the typical Pixar chase finale), and this mid-film twist made me worry that it was not going to keep being good. These worries were unfounded; they probably had more to do with the film returning to Earth. It is a perfectly comfortable Earth—a New York City painted with glowing autumnal golds, and bustling with a jazz score by Jon Batiste—and it's an Earth that Docter, by story necessity, delivers with significant beauty, even with the self-imposed handicap of a protagonist whose head is shaped like a bowling pin, a choice that I never quite agreed with for all 100 minutes of this movie despite really liking Joe as a character.
But Earth was never going to be as fun to look at as not Earth, and Soul's bardo is weird and cosmic and decked out with a superb electronic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (obviously, it helps that I like electronica a lot more than jazz), not to mention some of the most unique and novel CG effects animation you'll ever see in your life, from the downright trippy reproduction of Douglas Trumbull-style watertank effects to visualize the white pit of the Great Beyond, to the very, very direct homage to Masaaki Yuasa's Mindgame in the visualization of Joe's freshly-dead soul, which maybe isn't the best narrative strategy Docter could've deployed (Soul is basically the exact same movie as Mindgame, except not even attempting to be that aggressively great), but it gratifies me just to see it done with fancy computers, and moreso that Yuasa's masterpiece hasn't been forgotten. The Great Before is even better, a pastel cloudland with jet black back offices, populated by blue smudges and run by some of Pixar's most extraordinary creations—I guess we could call them "Jerries," though sometimes they're "Terries"—a demidivine race of loopy, largely-easily-bamboozled cosmic administrators who explain that they are a manifestation of all quantum fields (I mean, who isn't?) and all talk like BMO on low battery. More importantly, they're represented by two-dimensional lineart that moves, impossibly, through three-dimensional space, like cubism come to life. (The "Earth patches" are a plank in my eye, though, and why the kind of cloth appliques that go on leather jackets were chosen as the basis for this film's maguffin's design, in a world that is otherwise exclusively made of TRON-ish glowy stuff and fluffy clouds, will remain forever a mystery to me.)
Well, anyway: it traverses both these worlds with good humor and its heart on its sleeve—thanks to the intervention of a crypto-stoner mystic, we even get to check back in on the bardo while we're on Earth—and it's adorably sincere enough that you don't start pulling at its loose threads till it's over. (The biggest is how blithely it skips over how much genuine suffering bodied existence entails, but we can spot a Pixar movie its optimism; the most in-the-moment blatant, then, is how Joe's resistance appears to be unusual. At least this is lampshaded well, in the film's most laugh-out-loud joke, "Why aren't you running?", as Joe pushes a bunch of hilariously-serene randos out of the way to escape being conveyered into the light.) Fey is, inevitably, the engine for most of the film's gags—Foxx is funnier, because, you know, the straight man usually is, but 22's sneering condescension is certainly cute, and Fey clearly represents pretty good casting on that count. Whatever else, Soul never resembles its deeply irritating and unfunny trailers. (And it's still not uniformly successful as a comedy: the script is a little too willing to trivialize its astral planes with occasionally very-lazy humor, like a reference to the Great Before's marketing department, which is pretty damn stupid; and Soul has more pop culture references than usual for Pixar.)
It's mostly successful at everything else, however, and, indeed, a slightly great little movie—it's a fine addition to the canon of heavenly bureaucracies on film. It has a pretty swell climax, which sidles up with another helping of unique-and-novel CG effects animation as well as a flattening moment of self-realization for poor Joe. Its very sourest note? A post-credits stinger, a Ferris Bueller-style "go home! get out of here!" bit from one of the Jerries and/or Terries, and it leaves a nasty aftertaste. How much would it have cost to fix this? Five grand? I am home, you freaking idiot.
*Indeed, this Pixar movie has an unreasonable amount of fun with this newfound ability to say (cover your ears) the h-word.