'Soul' Review: An Existential and Ambitious Comedy That Remixes the Best of Pixar

There’s no question that Soul has, well, a soul. In fact, this existential Pixar comedy has many souls jangling around its story, and near as many ideas. It’s a movie bursting to the seams with wild concepts, twists, and turns, almost to the point of feeling overloaded with them. But it is by far one of the most ambitious films that the animation studio has ever produced, and one that continues Pixar’s streak of telling increasingly personal and specific stories that explore what it means to be human.

Soul is the latest Pixar movie that feels like an extension of the animators’ own existential crises, which is to say, watching it makes you think, “Those folks at Pixar are going through something, huh?” But making the existential entertaining is what director Pete Docter does best, following up his cerebral animated masterpiece Inside Out with another ambitious humdinger. Soul manages to be a body-swap comedy, a buddy adventure, and a rumination on death and life’s passions all in one movie — with some of the most beautiful, photorealistic CG-animation that the studio has delivered yet — but it can’t help but feel like a newer, fancier remix of what Docter explored in the abstract existentialism of Inside Out and what Pixar nailed with the visualization of the afterlife in Coco. Still, there’s something to be said for a movie that almost overwhelms you with how much movie it is, and still manages to give you that familiar Pixar lump in your throat.

Soul follows middle-aged music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, doing his Jamie Foxx thing), who has been waiting all his life for his big break. But the opportunities — and his life — keep passing him by, and Joe is forced to face reality: whether to take a steady, full-time job as a middle school music teacher, or give up on his dreams. But a dream gig seemingly drops on his lap when a former student calls him up to be a replacement pianist for respected jazz artist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). A nervous Joe nails the audition, and in his elation, accidentally falls down an open manhole in the street.

He’s dead. His soul materializes on a great stairway to the “Great Beyond,” surrounded by other souls who are happy to leave behind the mortal coil. But Joe is not done with life yet — he’s only just gotten his big chance! So he pushes and tears at the invisible boundaries around this heavenly staircase and falls down into an abyss, where he lands in a plush pastoral valley that he learns is the “Great Before,” where new souls develop personalities, quirks, and traits before being sent off to Earth. Mistaken for a new mentor, a soul whose great achievements in life grant him/her the chance to impart wisdom on a new soul, Joe sees his chance to return to his body by helping a new soul get their “spark” and stealing their ticket to Earth. The only problem: he’s assigned the longtime problem soul, 22 (a perfectly cast Tina Fey), a cynic who has no desire to go to Earth.

From here, Soul takes more twists and turns than you could expect even from an existential comedy about the afterlife. True to the jazz-loving core of the film, Soul feels like it riffs and improvises in truly unpredictable ways, jumping from abstract afterlife examination to buddy comedy to a high-stakes body-swap comedy that drops us back to Earth with a sudden cacophonous clang. Suddenly, Joe’s new quest isn’t to explore the abstract after/before-life, but to make his way to his gig of a lifetime under peculiar circumstances. The film suddenly transforms from a Pixar spin on the sublime “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence in Fantasia 2000 to an animated take on Uncut Gems, as the stakes — and tension — ramps up to an absurd degree. There’s even a “soul-counter” hot on Joe’s tail, Terry (a chilling Rachel House), drawn like a sinister Picasso painting. There are at least three movies taking place within this film, and while each works, it’s on the verge of tipping Soul over into being overcrowded.

Thank goodness that good old Pixar heart emerges to anchor it all together. For all the existential hand-wringing that Soul goes through (What is someone’s “spark”? What inspires a person to want to live? How should we better appreciate life?), at its heart is a story of a man for whom life’s opportunities have kept passing him by. Is he good enough? Does he love his passion enough? Did he miss the forest for the trees? Joe, in bonding with 22 — who goes through her own transformation over the course of the movie — is finally able to appreciate the big picture when he sees the world through her eyes, and she through his.

Soul is dealing with themes that may even be beyond its grasp. The idea of creative passions becoming a reason for living has been a recurring thread through most Pixar films, but Soul attempts to dig deeper. And while it may not find one perfect discernible answer, it’s a search that feels inherently…soulful.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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