Written by: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade
Passion and purpose do not always align in the way we would want. It goes with the old adage of doing what you love for a career ensures you never work a day in your life. A perfect marriage of the two becomes the unattainable standard for people to believe they can have it all wrapped into a perfect package. Soul poignantly breaks down the fallacy of this belief system in a moving Pixar story seemingly made for adults rather than children.
Working as an unfulfilled schoolteacher, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) wants his big break in the jazz industry with his love stemming from his youth. When given the break he’s been waiting for, he falls into a manhole and has entered the phase where his soul will enter the great beyond. Trying to fight his way back to his body on Earth, he finds himself mentoring a soul not ready to jump into Earth themselves.
Pixar’s willingness to make its audience rethink their way of life has come together in staggering ways, and specifically those directed by Pete Doctor. With his previous works including Monster’s Inc., Up, and Inside Out, he really goes for the jugular on the emotional complexities of the characters in a way people can thoroughly understand. He makes them palatable for even a child to comprehend and he tries it once again in Soul to a lesser degree to those other masterful works but ultimately still effective. With this film, Doctor operates on the existential ideas of what will ultimately fulfill someone in their venture in life. It comes with no easy answers but the way it gets broken down provides the intended comedy and emotional punch.
Joe has loved Jazz ever since his father took him to a club and his entire life since then has come with the focus of succeeding in this specific profession. This has led him to be middle-aged and just being offered a full-time job for the first time. Him essentially dying before his big break feels like the cruel joke in life but the journey he embarks on in the Great Beyond and then the Great Before begins to compartmentalize what makes a human find their purpose.
The design of these structures walks a fine line of what paradise and human conception looks like. With Pixar typically being narratively ambitious but also wide-ranging with the audience it wants to attract, tackling this idea naturally brushes up with other religious ideologies of how humans are made and where they go when they die. The writers of the film find a good balance in the way they present these mystical places and what constructs the personality of each individual. This leads to Joe needing to mentor a soul proving not ready to find its body on Earth named 22 (Tina Fey). This little soul remains stuck in the Great Before because it cannot find its purpose, which proves to be a requirement. It makes it all the funnier when displaying all of the other souls getting ready to be trained being in the billions with this one being number 22. As one of the first souls to ever exist, it seems fair to say they have been up there for a fairly long time. Both Joe and 22 have their doubts about each other but the journey they both go on allows them to fully understand this difference between passion and purpose. Plenty of comedy found in their interactions but also incredibly emotionally touching segments as well.
Ambition always seems to be the common theme in all of Doctor’s Pixar films as these concepts feel too heady to try to put on-screen but still come out in a fully palatable manner. While this film will inevitably receive comparisons to Inside Out, this story will definitely leave a large impact on individuals struggling with a battle similar to Joe. With it having humor kids can connect to, the story undoubtedly has its eyes set on adults. Many have found themselves in the same predicament as Joe and the doubt that creeps in as to whether you have accomplished all you have wanted in life. This focal point of jazz has consumed so much in life and the glee it gives him pushes out any other interest or relationship possible. It allows the wonky second act to teach him important lessons of living in his moment. No sequence captures this more effectively than the barbershop scene, which carries a level of human connection many may be lacking this year.
As much as the story becomes the focal point to the success, the animation on display shows Pixar is getting dangerously close with how realistic the characters look. The way New York City gets animated looks breathtakingly gorgeous from the lighting utilized to the personality imbued in this vibrant city. It demonstrates why people choose to live there and what makes it home for Joe while also finding the purpose of 22 as well. Each room feels lived in and fulfilling as a place people call home. Even with the realistic look of CGI animation, there still manages to be a balance in not reaching the uncanny valley other animated films have failed in the past. Stunning to see and I look forward to viewing how much further Pixar will push this medium of storytelling.
While going off the rails at times but still delivering its message in an emotionally resonant manner, Soul stands as yet another stellar entry by Pixar and Pete Doctor. It touches on living, purpose, passion, and how they all intertwine for an individual amongst billions of others. The story feels individualistic while also signifying the importance of connection amongst others. Deeply moving at its height and one to think about when you get stuck in the direction you’re taking in life.