‘Soul’ is brilliant effort from Pixar that brings studio back to its best

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Photo credit: Disney

Gardner (Foxx) and 22 (Fey) gaze upon Earth from “The Great Ahead.”

Noah Sparkman, Staff Writer

What is your purpose?
This is the question posed by Pixar’s latest animated feature “Soul,” directed by Pete Docter, and starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.
Pixar has long been known as a studio whose pictures tackle wonderfully complex themes, often in an emotionally devastating fashion. From “Inside Out” to “Up,” almost everyone can recall shedding tears during a Pixar film; it is practically part of American culture at this point.
In the past few years, however, an emphasis had been placed on sequels like “Finding Dory” and “Incredibles 2.” While the recent slate of films has been generally liked by the public, most people agree that Pixar simply has not been the same as of late, leaving many to call for original films that evoke the same feeling that the studio was once known for.
It is a delight to report that “Soul” succeeds beautifully in this endeavor.
The picture chronicles the journey of struggling jazz musician Joe Gardner (Foxx) in his effort to reclaim his barely-living body from “The Great Ahead.” Along the way, he develops a special relationship with 22 (Fey), a soul that has been resisting a planned rebirth for centuries.
The film works as smoothly as it does due in large part to the impeccable chemistry between the leads, with Gardner serving as a straight man to the sarcastic but increasingly enthusiastic 22.
Witnessing 22 discover all of the little nuances that make life special is one of the true joys this film provides, and results in some of the most poignant dialogue delivered in a children’s film in quite some time.
“Soul” is, at times, utterly hilarious as well. From quirky soul-guides to the body-swap shenanigans that occupy most of the film’s second act, Docter and the writers find the perfect time to intercut the deep themes being explored with some much-needed levity.
The film truly does an excellent job of creating a rather light-hearted atmosphere, and the audience feels at times like they are discovering something new along with the characters.
The absolutely breathtaking animation goes a long way toward structuring the world, too. From the striking colors of “The Great Ahead” to the brilliant lighting of New York City, I often found myself wishing that I was able to witness this in a theater, rather than in the film’s designated home of Disney+.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the excellent score, composed by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste. Composed of jazzy riffs and bubbly chords, the music often provides a backdrop of revelation to the events of the film, and builds that atmosphere even more.
While the casual viewer will likely be entertained enough by the simple fun that is to be had in the film, those willing to dig deep into the themes will be the ones most rewarded by the film.
The third act pivots almost entirely from the first two, and we are treated to a quiet, intimate affair. Without revealing much about the plot, the characters have arrived at both their highest and lowest points and are left to simply contemplate.
The results of this reflection are somehow both heartbreaking and incredibly uplifting. In particular, a beautifully understated sequence in which Gardner plays a piano is indelibly etched into my memory, and likely will be for many other audience members as well.
Moments like that are what bring “Soul” from an entertaining diversion to something truly special.
In a climate where so many filmmakers are content to focus on humor or plot and sacrifice thematic value in exchange, Docter dares to pack a thematic punch, and it truly makes for an unforgettable viewing experience.
Few films are as bold and singular in their vision as “Soul” is. It will heal you, hurt you, and heal you all over again, and by the end of it, you truly feel as though you have been on a journey with these characters.
For those struggling with the pandemic or any other challenges the past year has brought, the film is a sure-fire antidote. Walking away from it will undoubtedly leave one inspired, but deeply enlightened as well.
The fact that this can be said for a children’s movie is almost unfathomable these days, and it is enormously reassuring to say that Pixar has made a film that is not only a revelation for the studio, but surely will be for millions who watch it as well.