There may be no more creatively fertile Pixar personality than Pete Docter — from his spot on the original braintrust for Toy Story to his senior advisory role on WALL-E and, most of all, his own hands-on directorial / screenwriting work with Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out. Almost any old animated film incorporates moments of fear, disappointment and emotional confusion alongside some goofy, colorful quest for a whatchamacallit. Docter so often transcends that, springboarding off those notions into inventive, introspective treatises on the life of the mind or the feeling of being alive. All five of those films remain among Pixar’s platinum tier for their technical prowess, emotional intelligence and sheer entertainment value.
It was perhaps inevitable that Docter would arrive at a juncture where his concept and execution get crossed up as they do in Soul, debuting on Disney+ on Christmas Day. But it’s no less disappointing. Certainly, an adult’s enjoyment of this extremely existential odyssey might depend on their experience (or lack thereof) with similarly themed films like Albert Brooks’ classic Defending Your Life or contemporary TV series like The Good Place or Upload. As for kids? Soul feels like the first Pixar film where no one cared if the youngest could keep pace with the ideas as long as they ooh and aah at the Seussian sketch of its spiritual settings and cackle at the slapstick of a second act that, quite honestly, feels a small step above The Secret Life of Pets.
Soul’s story follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a Black jazz pianist who finds himself at a crossroads crisis. Joe can either accept a financially stable, but perilously boring, long-term job teaching band to disinterested kids or chase his most passionate dream to join the backing band of jazz chanteuse Dorothea Williams but disappoint his mother. The scripted wink in the screenplay (by Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones) is that if Joe could just play with Dorothea, he could die a happy man.
That’s exactly what Joe does, hours before his big-gig debut. (The Rube Goldberg-ish montage of the fates Joe avoids ahead of his more banal demise is fairly, well, cartoonish, by Pixar standards.) When Joe comes to, his soul is in the Great Beyond, namely on an escalator to heaven. In a panic, Joe escapes (keeping his body alive on Earth) and finds himself in the Great Before, where souls develop personalities, quirks and traits before inhabiting physical bodies on Earth.
From the perspective of thoughtful animation, Pixar outdoes itself yet again with images that are intuitively mournful and melancholic. When Joe revisits his life’s memories in the Great Beyond, they are cast in narrow spotlights. That’s how we see them, too, focusing on the high-wattage moments rather than the less-illuminated bits that really make us who we are. And the Great Before feels simultaneously serene and threatening, as if a latent threat hides behind every picturesque vista. Because even the most nihilistic industrial rockers live long enough to score a Pixar film, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute to this sorta-sinister edge; consider it Ghosts VII: Happy(?). (Jon Batiste deftly handles the score’s jazz segments.)
It’s in the Great Before that Joe accidentally becomes a mentor to 22, a snarky, blobby soul of unrealized potential that speaks with Tina Fey’s voice because that has historically been the most annoying to people. (Seriously, not even Mother Teresa could stand up to 22’s sass; “you can’t crush a soul here,” 22 says. “That’s what life on Earth is for.”)
Soul eventually winds up back on Earth as Joe and 22 try to game the cosmic system; how that happens, and the consequences that result, are best left unspoiled. There are several galaxy-brain jokes, such as those involving Pizza Rat or perennial woes of a certain sports team. And there are worse takeaway messages for kids keeping up than understanding life is not meaningless just because you’re not a superstar, that we all have influence to better the world, and, in its strongest visual representation, illustrating how the cutting words we sometimes carelessly deliver can create oppressive weight that’s hard for someone to shake.
But Soul is ultimately more whiplash than whip-smart, rapidly riffling through so many creative concepts in its first act that the final two feel littered with half-scribbled notions. The screenplay also stumbles in moments where it reckons with racial and cultural disparities between Foxx and Fey’s voices. And it arrives at a frankly troublesome ending, one that tosses out some of the film’s most salient points for a more pleasant and platitudinal finish meant not to make anyone feel bad. A fearlessness for challenging questions has never been a problem for Docter and company before. Perhaps a post-production rush during what has been an uncommonly harrowing year threw them off. Whatever the reason, it’s the first Docter Pixar that’s still lovely, just not amazing.