Ever since Toy Story, Pixar has engaged in a subtle, cerebral examination of what it means to be alive. Films like Wall*E, Up!, and Inside Out tackle different aspects of individuality, with the unifying theme that there is something magic and unknowable within our very existence. Perhaps that’s what has elevated Pixar’s portfolio above its ilk: While other children’s fare preoccupies itself with miserable cuteness–Minions and Angry Birds do sell Happy Meals, after all–Toy Story 3 chews on the question of why we are.
Here then, we have Soul, wherein Pixar’s transcendental journey finally gets laid bare. The story feels a little bit like a blend of Mr. Holland’s Opus and Heaven Can Wait: Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) is a talented jazz pianist who teaches music to apathetic middle schoolers. Now plunk into middle age, Joe still dreams of a professional music career, oblivious to the difference he makes in his everyday life.
Fortune smiles when Joe lands a huge gig with a famous sax player (voice of Angela Bassett). He walks on air, until that air leads Joe to fall down a manhole. Now deceased, Joe journeys to the afterlife, which takes the form of an incorporeal escalator to the Great Beyond. The only problem is that our hero ain’t ready for Heaven. Joe makes a break for it and ends up plunging down into the Great Before, where souls are sent to inhabit new bodies.
This mix-up leads Joe being assigned as a mentor to a temperamental new soul, designated #22 (voice of Tina Fey). This turns out to be a nightmare, as 22 has jitters about plunging down to Earth. She’s been in the Before for thousands of years, turning down the advice of luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. Her attitude puts Joe in a real pickle: He desperate wants to return to our world, while 22 will do anything to avoid it.
I could give away more of Soul‘s plot, but I won’t. Part of the Pixar magic lies in the discovery of their twists and a disarmingly charming sense of humor. Just know that most of what follows is a light-hearted romp, albeit with a whip-smart metaphysical subtext. As always, Pixar finds that creative pH balance to keep kids and adults enrapt at the same time. The proof of how difficult that is lies in how many animated movies have to tried to replicate this formula and failed.
As for Soul‘s strengths, most longtime Pixar fans will know exactly what to expect: The animation is chocked with eye-popping visuals, some of which machete a new trail for what’s possible in the genre. Think back to the first Toy Story, where the wonder was that this kinda stuff was even possible. Now you can marvel at the expansive rendering of New York City, wherein every street corner, subway station, and skyscraper feels stunningly real. No animated film has captured its location with the meticulous brilliance of this one.
The voice actors are also predictably reliable: Foxx excels at playing gifted men, even though his Joe Gardner is beset with anxious tics and insecurities. Fey is, well, distinctly Tina Fey–ish. Many of her snappy one-liners seem ported directly from 30 Rock, and this snark gives the film a needed jolt of caffeine. On the subject of caffeine, hyperactive talk show host Graham Norton turns in cute supporting work as a spiritual hippie who can toggle between the spirit world and the real one.
Soul isn’t quite a masterpiece. The Toy Story films, Wall*E, and Up! are just a notch above it. (Side note: I know some of you don’t love Wall*E, and I would urge you to give it another look. If it still isn’t your cup of Earl Grey, then you’re wrong and you need to learn to live with yourself. I’m kidding. Sort of.) That said, Soul is a really, really good film. It’s ambitious without being pretentious. The ending is fairly beautiful in of itself, inspiring and contemplative. Adults and older kids may come away from Soul with a lot to think about. And that’s the great thing about Pixar: They aren’t afraid to ask questions that only lead to more questions.
101 min. PG. Disney+