Pixar’s Most Mature Movie Yet

The new Pixar movie isn’t inappropriate for children, but they’re not the target audience for a film that ponders what it means to be alive.

The Counselor Jerrys in Pixar's Soul

Part of Pixar’s rep rests on how they make movies with crossover appeal. They’re not lowest common denominator fare designed to keep kids occupied for 90 minutes while parents get a brief reprieve. Instead, they’re the gold standard in animated family movies as they appeal to kids and adults alike, and while the studio’s output isn’t quite as consistent as it was in their heyday, they still know how to crank out emotional powerhouses like Coco and Inside Out. Their latest film, Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ gorgeously realized Soul finally decides to shift the subject matter squarely towards older audiences. Younger viewers will still have fun with the humor (and Soul has some of the best gags in Pixar’s entire filmography), but Soul is primarily concerned with what it means to be alive, what makes our lives worth living, and if too much is accorded to notions of “purpose” rather than simply soaking in the majesty of life itself. Visually audacious and complimented by an Oscar-worthy score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Soul is as emotional as the best Pixar movies while achieving a level of maturity that previous efforts haven’t quite hit.

Joe (Jamie Foxx) has spent his adult life toiling away as a music teacher even though his dream—and he believes his purpose—is to play jazz professionally. He finally gets his big break to join the Dorothea Williams Quartet only to leave his triumphant audition and fall down an open manhole. Sent to the Great Beyond, Joe’s soul isn’t ready to pass on, and so he escapes only to stumble into The Great Before where souls prepare for life on Earth. Joe masquerades as a mentor figure to the obstinate and sardonic soul 22 (Tina Fey), and the two strike a deal. Joe will help 22 find her “spark”, she’ll get an “Earth pass”, and then she’ll give the pass to Joe so he can return to his body and she can stay in the Great Before where she’s comfortable with her existence.

Image via Disney-Pixar

Soul wisely doesn’t get too hung up on the metaphysics of it all. The world Docter and Powers have created has its own rules of entrance and exits, but Soul largely adheres more to a system similar to The Good Place where it doesn’t go with any particular belief system, but rather builds its own kind of philosophically and theologically blended afterlife/beforelife to better emphasizes the themes about the meaning of life. Whether it’s getting as specific as why 22 talks with a middle-aged woman’s voice or as broad as some of the plot developments that happen after the first act (which I won’t spoil here since they haven’t been shared in the trailers), Soul always comes back to an exploration of what it means for Joe to be alive and why 22 thinks that life on Earth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Pixar has attempted these weightier themes before, and sometimes they really pay off, but there are times when the lighthearted nature of the plot doesn’t quite match the maturity of the themes. Monsters University is a delightful and underrated romp, but it’s also a movie about how not everyone is cracked up to be a star athlete, but coaches have their place too. Cars 3 is a bizarre story about what it means to wrestle with your legacy and what you pass on to the next generation, but it doesn’t really work because the characters are talking cars. Even a film as beautiful and complex as Inside Out all comes back to the emotions of an adolescent girl and what it means for her to start growing up.

Image via Disney-Pixar

By comparison, Soul is about a middle-aged man who has been chasing one dream his entire life, and he believes that accomplishing that dream is what stands between him and his life having meaning. A younger viewer isn’t really going to understand that, but it hits like a sledgehammer to an adult who looks at their life and their choices and wonders if their life is only as good as their professional achievements. After all, if you have a spark and a talent, and that talent goes unfulfilled professionally, then have you wasted your life? If we talk about people being “productive members of society”, then is your value only in what you produce? These are really heavy questions, and Soul explores them in a thoughtful and sublime manner.

The audacity of the subject matter is matched by the scope of the direction. Yes, Soul is yet another Pixar “buddy” movie, but that plot basis still allows plenty of room the explore the ideas in a unique way. The film shines brightest in its depiction of the soul world, and I’m a little upset that my first experience with the movie was on my television rather than the big screen. What Docter and Powers do with the visuals here is extraordinary, and while the functions of the soul world are clearly drawn from a variety of sources, the depiction is unlike anything really seen in an animated film of this scale. Coupled with Reznor & Ross melding their spellbinding score with jazz compositions from Jon Batiste, and you have an experience that stands apart in Pixar’s vaunted filmography.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Soul will make its debut on Disney+, and that’s an awkward home for this movie. I don’t expect Disney executives to know or care what their movies are about, but at the end of the day you have a movie about living life to the fullest in a year where we were all trapped indoors, away from our loved ones, and over a million people have died from the disease worldwide. Maybe other family films are good for plopping down in front of the new streaming service and forgetting about the cares of the world, but Soul is not one of them. Nevertheless, Soul is a must-see movie that rings bittersweet in 2020, but as the film shows, even those bittersweet moments are a beautiful part of life.

Rating: A-

Soul arrives on Disney+ on December 25th.

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