Ten points if you get the headline reference. The points have no value.
Leave it to Pixar to once again create a visual representation of one of the most complex and indescribable sensations of life. Just as Inside Out – my favorite film of the century to date – was able to personify emotions, personality, and imagination in ways never before conceived, so too does Soul continue to break new ground in abstract storytelling with an essential connection to the human experience. The fact that it’s simply gorgeous to look at in pretty much every frame is just an added bonus.
I previously mentioned in my review of Blinded by the Light a couple years ago that my first Bruce Springsteen concert was something like a religious experience that shook me to my very core. That’s usually the best descriptor I have for moments like that, because religion is a fairly easy comparative experience, especially in this country. But it’s not exactly accurate, because I’m not religious, and also, it’s really difficult to put this particular feeling into words. When I hear just the right song, or see the right film, or really get into a performance that I’m putting on, it feels otherworldly, like I’m being transported to another plane of existence. My brain releases chemicals and hormones that I can feel coursing through my body. My heart flutters. Time starts to slow down. I feel as if I could reach out and grab the very air I’m breathing. It’s transcendent.
That feeling exists for just about every single human on this planet in one form or another, and Soul finds multiple, glorious ways to depict it. From the dreamlike state of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) whenever he plays a piano, to the myriad new souls finding their “spark,” which gets them ready for life, to the hippie Moonwind (a hilarious Graham Norton) literally bridging the gap between the real world and the metaphysical whenever he gets into a zen-like “zone,” the film does an expert job at showing us on a screen that which so many of us have only attempted to grasp as a concept. Even when it’s played for laughs, it’s essential, because for many people out there, a well-timed joke is their “spark,” as equally valid and beautiful as someone who composes a symphony or someone who takes pride in a hard day’s work. As Morgan Freeman once noted in Bruce Almighty (I can’t believe I’ve referenced that movie in consecutive reviews), “Some of the happiest people in the world go home smelling to high heaven at the end of the day.” That, at its core, is the genius of Soul.
As far as the story goes, it’s rather clever. Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher and jazz pianist, gets a choice between two career paths on the same day. He can either accept a full-time position teaching music, which gives him stability and allows him to share his joy with others in an essential profession, or he can go for one more shot at his lofty dreams, performing in a jazz quartet. After passing his audition, a gleeful Joe doesn’t look where he’s going and falls down a manhole. It’s a tragic and ironic death, though to be fair, since I live in Los Angeles, my sympathy for jaywalkers is VERY low. His soul, a bulbous blue marshmallow-like figure that mildly resembles his human form, creeps along a moving walkway towards “The Great Beyond.”
Not yet ready for the permanence of death, especially when he’s on the cusp of everything he ever wanted, Joe jumps out of line and ends up in “The Great Before,” a hilly, half-formed environment filled with bright yet muted colors. There, new souls prepare to be born into the world by having their personalities developed and their passions chosen. This is aided by a team of mentors led by a group of counselors, all named Jerry (chiefly Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade). After hastily assuming the identity of one of the mentors, Joe is paired up with Soul #22 (Tina Fey), a cynical rapscallion who has gone through thousands of mentors across human history without ever earning her “spark,” and thus never going to Earth. She simply sees no point in living, and enjoys her limbo existence as it is. Seeing an opportunity, Joe decides to make a deal with 22: he’ll show her enough of life on Earth to find her passion and spark, and in exchange, when she gets her pass to go to Earth, she’ll give it to him so that he can resume his life. Using Moonwind’s mystical connection between dimensions, they travel to the real world, and hijinks ensue.
At this point, the story becomes fairly standard. Beautiful things are seen, lessons are learned, both characters get perspective, and before long we’re off to the happy ending. And that’s not me spoiling anything. This is Disney/Pixar – only bad guys and parents are allowed to truly die. And really, there is no bad guy in this movie. The closest you get to even an antagonist is a Great Beyond accountant named Terry (Rachel House) who notices Joe’s absence as a discrepancy in the overall death count, and merely wants to correct it. She’s not a villain, just a studious bureaucrat who serves mainly to throw up a single obstacle towards the end of the second act. And frankly, I’m glad for it, because just like Inside Out, this story would feel poorly served to have anything resembling a bad guy, because that would mean having an argument against the very concept of life itself, which just seems like a bad idea for a movie like this. That’s Charlie Kaufman territory, not Pixar.
This film is one of the rare Pixar projects that blends its heartfelt existential explorations with some excellent humor, both referential and slapstick. There are a lot of historical gags that the littlest of little kids won’t understand, but their parents will, and they’ll laugh their butts off. There’s one particular joke about the New York Knicks that almost caused a spit take from me. A lot of this is down to the creativity of the writing, but also to the strong comedic cast. Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, they’ve all got years under their belt in situational and sketch comedy. These people know comic timing. Even if the film weren’t animated and edited, these people would have you in stitches with some of this material. From a personal standpoint, I could have done without the cat antics that happen in the second act, mostly because it’s been done to death, but I can certainly see where others would find it funny. Oddly enough, the one person you’d expect to be adding to the humor of this cast is noticeably absent. John Ratzenberger, who has had a credited role in every Pixar film to date, has finally broken his streak. He does appear, for about one line, in an uncredited role as a voice on the subway, but that’s it. For all intents and purposes, the Ratzenberger streak is over.
Now, on a visual level, this film is simply astonishing. There’s not much new with the human character designs, they’re pretty much the standard Pixar models, just a bit sharper and more highly defined. But everything else? Wowzers. The Great Beyond has an almost full three-dimensional feel, like you the viewer are being sucked into a vortex. It’s a great optical illusion. The designs of the Jerrys and Terry are an inspired combination of 2D characters in a 3D environment, as basically a single line that curls around itself and rejoins into a form, thin and flat against the vastness of their own world. And in the reality of New York, there were times when I honestly felt like I was watching live-action. The musical instruments, the textures of fabric and clothes, the street signs and lights, the buildings, it all looked so… real. It’s amazing how far this technology’s come in just 25 years.
But most importantly, what separates the top tier of Pixar from the rest is the level of imagination that a film can inspire in its audience, and Soul has it in spades. For example, many people theorize about all the films being in some shared universe, with easter eggs all over the place and an A113 somewhere to be found. But for me, I was instantly imagining this film as a prequel to Inside Out. I can see a world where the Great Before is used to prepare a soul for life and seed its personality, then once it’s born into a human body, the core emotions awaken. This would also explain why when a core memory is forged, the brain/headquarters can instantly construct an island of personality. It was already pre-loaded by the Jerrys and the mentors. The core memory just activates it. When those islands break down, and someone becomes detached, like Riley almost did, maybe the next step is to become one of the “Lost Souls” that Moonwind and his friends try to rescue. It honestly doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The mind can truly race, and that’s how you know that Pixar has truly created something special this time. This is sure to reach the pantheon of the studio’s output.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What patches do you think you got in the Great Before? What is your “spark”? Let me know!