Pixar has been dealing with existentialism for a few movies now. Ever since Inside Out, Pixar, the movie studio that has always had decidedly more adult geared fair, has been trying and trying to answer big questions. They’ve been trying to give the audience more. More questions. More answers. More opulence. Stronger scripts and stories. More, more, more. More of everything that makes Pixar special and that makes Pixar the best movie studio out there right now. So, it’s no surprise that Pixar’s new movie, Soul, is, without a doubt, the best film they’ve ever created. Period. From the story to the animation, everything about Soul is pitch-perfect. It’s a beautiful film that captures life’s little moments, the ones that everyone takes for granted.
Soul begins in a beautifully rendered New York City. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a part-time middle school band teacher whose kiddos can’t even hold a tune in a bucket. He feels like he’s spinning his wheels. He wants to be a jazz musician. He wants to be on stage, but he’s circling the drain. He’s getting older. He’s alone. He takes his laundry to his mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) tailor shop where she berates him and gets onto him for always having his head in the clouds and focusing his whole life on music. Joe’s beginning to think that his big break has passed him by. That’s when Curley (Questlove) calls him about a gig with legendary sax player Dorthea Williams (Angela Bassett, because of course). Joe nails the gig only to promptly fall into a manhole and die.
Not ready to go into the Great Beyond as a cotton-candy colored, almost formless soul blob, Joe takes a leap of faith and ends up in the Great Before where more cotton-candy colored, formless soul blobs get ready to become children. There, he meets 22 (Tina Fey). 22 has been in the Great Before for thousands of years. She’s had mentors like Abe Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa. She also doesn’t want to live. She’s been a formless soul blob for so long, she doesn’t want to do anything else. She’s in a bit of a rut. The only way for Joe to return to his body is to help 22 find her spark, the last piece of a badge that will grant her life and the ability to go to Earth to live. It’s that badge that will get Joe back home.
What follows is a delightful romp around New York City as 22 and Joe go back to Earth to help Joe make his big break and teach 22 the meaning of life. But there’s a catch. 22 ends up in Joe’s body and Joe ends up in the body of a therapy cat. Regardless of where they end up, 22 and Joe teach each other the meaning of life and attempt to answer those existential and big questions, most importantly: what makes us have a will to live?
According to Soul, the most important part of life is the little things, the little joys that touch our hearts. The ones we take for granted as we grind on in daily monotony. Things like propeller seeds and music and a good slice of pizza and conversation. Those are the things that make life worth living. Also, the whole idea of a “spark,” a single defining characteristic or love, is a preposterous thing to consider. We can tell ourselves that our sparks are things like music, English, philosophy, history, sports, art, or whatever singular, all-encompassing high school subject we might excel in, but there’s more than that and our sparks can change and are far more complicated and shaded gray than we often make them out to be.
It’s that beauty and complication that Soul gives us in the form of animated perfection. For twenty-five years, Pixar has been pushing the envelope of computer graphics and animation. They are pioneers and the technology they’ve created, that they put to the test with stunning results in Toy Story 4, was put to good use here. The imagery and, well, soul in the animation is hard to miss. This is a stunning film both in composition, execution, character creation, and more. For once, Pixar doesn’t have a film where all the women’s faces look alike. Each individual character has distinct features, shapes, sizes, and clothing cuts and colors. Joe’s barber, Des, even has gasp tattoos. It’s so refreshing to see this in a Pixar movie. More characters, especially the female ones, should look more distinctive and set apart from each other.
The photorealistic animation in Soul makes it feel like New York is living and breathing, and isn’t that kind of the point? Joe is trying to learn how to live while trying to help 22 find her spark. What better place to do that than New York, a state that’s a bustling melting pot of so many cultures and hobbies and people? Feeling that same living and breathing energy on the screen is important to the film’s narrative and the animators did such a wonderful job. The lighting is dynamic. The details are exquisite. I’ve been to New York and the film captured the weird, wonderful, and whimsical vibe of the cities and boroughs there perfectly.
Soul is easily one of Pixar’s best films ever. It’s the best film I’ve seen all year. Here’s to hoping this trend of animation and storytelling will continue in Pixar’s future films.
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