Review: Pixar's Profound 'Soul' Made by Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
by Alex Billington
December 22, 2020
Whether or not the soul really truly exists, as we humans perceive it, doesn't really matter. Pixar's Soul is a profound and moving experience and one of their best movies in years. It is a spiritual sequel to Inside Out, but only in concept, in that it visualizes and rationalizes the irrational concept of a "soul" (rather than our emotions like Inside Out) and takes us on a journey to the other side, the great beyond, to remind us how beautiful our lives really are. Much like Inside Out, also directed by Pete Docter, this film becomes a guide for helping us deal with the weight of grappling with questions like "what does having a soul mean and how do we deal with these thoughts about it?" While focusing on one specific person and his experience, we're still able to learn about ourselves and feel the warm embrace of Joe's story and his own desire for meaning.
This is Pixar's first movie set in and kind of about New York City and they nailed it. It's not about getting the layout and the buildings right, it's all the little details, the aspects of it that make it such a unique city. The jokes about the subway, the fact that Joe even takes a subway and deals with it, they work these details in in a subtle way that makes it all feel authentic. This is important because it allows the rest of the story with Joe to become something else more meaningful, while grounding us in that authenticity of the city. I love that Pixar actually works hard to produce voice performances that are outstanding performances that fit the character more than anything. It's not about celebrities or big names or loud voices, it's about the right voice for the character, and making them sound real. And while it's easy to hear that Joe's voice is Jamie Foxx, it doesn't take long to forget that, fall into the story, and hear Joe as a unique person, struggling with his life.
Joe loves jazz, and like any artist these days, he has struggled to get his big break and is now stuck doing menial work as a middle school band teacher. He finally gets lucky and is about to get his big break playing piano for a big time jazz musician named Dorothea. But in his excitement he forgets to watch where he's going and – he's dead. The way Pixar visualizes this moment, and gently takes us through the act of dying, is a revelation in and of itself. It isn't jarring or frightening like so many other movies. But this is just the start of his story, as he is transformed into a blueish blob thing that is his "soul". And he ends up on a journey in this great beyond realm running around trying to figure out how to go from a soul to a human, rather than the other way around. And here is when it gets trippy, really trippy, and I enjoy so much when Pixar leans into that trippiness. They blend animation technique, creative visuals, and storytelling in magnificent way.
One of the best Pixar examples of this, and one of their first experiments with blending different styles, is in Inside Out when Joy and Bing Bong end up in "abstract thought" and become distorted. This time, in Soul, the entire great beyond soul realm is a mesmerizing blend as well - some of the ethereal characters have no dimensional reference at all and yet must be given some structure. This allows them to push the storytelling beyond the real-world and into a deeper realm where our imagination and our minds can roam free as we follow the characters. But once again, this is only just the start. Pete Docter's team at Pixar also perfectly visualized and personified concepts like a "lost soul" - a monstrous creature roaming a lonely desert. There's an incredible Wall Street banker joke referencing lost souls that is utterly brilliant. Not only is it hilariously animated, the whole point of the joke is not-so-subtle commentary about our times and I'm glad it's in this.
One of the great challenges for the filmmakers at Pixar is to visualize and animate and create all of this from nothing, and make it approachable and enjoyable for viewers of all ages. That's not easy considering they're dealing with subjects of death, the after life, the meaning and value of an adult life, lost souls, and so on. But Pete Docter is one of our greatest animation filmmakers and pulls this off, not only making it enjoyable and amusing, but also working in the necessary profundity that is vital for this story. The whole point of Soul is to not only entertain us, but also to leave us feeling moved, feeling like we've learned something more about ourselves and others by watching this story. It is a beneficial guide for all of us to understand our place, our value; and when the big questions come up, perhaps we can also reflect on Joe's journey to understanding.
The moment it ended I knew I loved it, but it took me a few days to process it even more. And I must simply say that Soul is one of the best movies of 2020. It is as profound and as life-affirming and as meaningful as Inside Out. With time, I've grown even more fond of Inside Out because I often will find myself referencing it for matters of our minds. To explain or deal with certain issues and emotions, or explain why we need sadness, for example. Not many movies are able to tackle this kind of cerebral storytelling and make it easy to digest and have meaning that lasts well beyond the running time. It's the same with Soul, a movie that speaks less to our emotions and actions, more to our value and our importance in the world. I'm really lucky I have a digital screener because I went back and rewatched some scenes a few times over right away they're so magical and moving. That one scene at the end is really special; it left me in tears each time I watched it.
Docter and co-director Kemp Powers have crafted a marvelously entertaining, spiritual, deeply inspiring, warmly uplifting, wonderfully trippy film about life and the beauty of living. All the incredible jazz music, the funky score, the clever storytelling, the twists & turns that give it some spunk, the sincere soul-searching third act. Not to mention some truly original, stunning animation which I know Pixar is excellent at and I've missed seeing from them. It's so refreshing to see a unique three-act story that goes to unexpected places and isn't just the same arc as always with animated movies. I believe Docter & Powers have made another knock out - another movie that stands proudly side-by-side with Inside Out as a glorious work of spiritual art. I'm so happy to fall in love with another Pixar movie again. And I'm already looking forward to sharing this experience with so many others in hopes that they'll enjoy Soul just as much and also feel affected by it.