I have severely mixed feelings about Soul taking such a light yet abstract take on existentialism. At its heart, yes, it’s a film more about inspiration and the importance of what one does with their life. The way the picture approaches such high-concepts of both birth and death are handled with an artistic flair but also a certain safety to never be too firm on aspects of the great beyond. All of this is treated with such an airy vibe that it allows the character dynamics to flow better rather than get too hung up on the mechanics of souls. Though more adult, it’s still a Pixar film and has to boil down at least a tad of its concepts for the younger crowd.
The life initially followed is Joe (Jamie Foxx), a failed jazz artist turned music teacher. Losing his spark for the craft, he’s conflicted when approached about teaching full-time with such uninspired and uninterested students. But then the gig of a lifetime slides his way when one of his former students tells him he might have an in with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Everything seems to be coming up Joe…until life comes to a sudden halt when he falls down a sewer.
Now out of his body, Joe finds his soul trying to escape the great beyond and find a way back to Earth. He stumbles into the valley of unborn souls, where the personality of a person is given character before being sent to Earth. There are a lot of questions raised about this process that is thankfully never answered. How do these souls come into being in the first place? We don’t know. All we know is that they’re puffy balls of ethereal elements that behave like mindless children. I’m assuming they lose their memories of this place come their great jump into mortality. This is never addressed because it seems obvious and the explanation seems wholly unnecessary.
Joe is mistaken as a mentor of the before-place and assigned to give the wayward soul of 22 (Tina Fey). Her name speaks volumes as apparently billions of souls have come before her and she’s been the unborn soul that can’t quite find her knack. So we have a protege/mentor situation where someone with a knack helps someone without. And, of course, they learn they have far more hangups than just trying to get back to jazz or trying remain unborn.
Per the Pixar process for crafting new worlds, Soul explores a few unique areas. There’s a sandy area of the afterlife that acts as a bridge for the inspired and uninpsired, where those absorbed in their craft enter a Northern-Lights style zone while those lathargic become mindless lost-soul monsters wandering around aimlessly. Some loose logic is required here to belief that meditating hippies could exist as pirates on this plain but it’s a visually pleasing concept that never becomes too bogged down in the logistics.
After a slew of mishaps and ambling around the afterlife, the film settles on a buddy dynamic between Joe and 22. They struggle to maneuver around the reality of New York City and contemplate just what it means to be living. 22 gets a chance to experience the pleasures that make life worth living and Joe learns that there’s a bit more to life than just the pleasures of jazz or the importance of making a living. There’s a light and contemplative nature to these many charming scenes and yet they still feel held back.
For the parents, the immediate answer is, yes, Soul is a pleasing picture that kids will find some imaginative wonder with while adults will resonate all the more. But unlike Pixar’s other films, the thematic elements don’t stretch as far this time. There are few animated films I can think of that have ever thought this hard about what it means to be alive. There are big ideas and dialogue that by no means talks down to the audience but it still feels as though such a picture reaches a certain edge it can’t cross.
There’s a surprising moment when 22 tries to talk a student out of pursuing a passion because of the major problems in public education that can stifle development. This is treated more like a joke and cut off just before it goes far too deep with societal questioning. This is also the case with Joe’s perceptions of death, never asking too many questions about where he has ended up and what the true end of all things feels like. Much of the imagination has to do some grunt work here, as the broader question of just how souls are created is never fully answered. It’s not that an immaculate answer is needed but when a film goes this far to speculate on preparing our identities for the world, one would think Pixar would go a step further.
While there’s quite a bit I liked about Soul, I never loved it for the somewhat empty feeling that this is the very limit of a Pixar film. It’s a film that can go no further on the road trying to comprehend what our minds can conjure and just how much of an impact one life has on the world. These are super-heavy topics given light-weight trimmings to craft a picture that is brimming with intelligence that is hindered by keeping things family-friendly. Films such as Inside Out and Coco have approached more cerebral topics with grace and wonderment while Soul seems surprisingly shy about wanting to dig deep into its own world.