Ever since their first feature film in 1995 (Toy Story), Pixar has proven several times that it can master the unique balance in mixing the latest cinematic technology with the classic foundations of what has made cinema so universally appealing over its relatively short history. Its latest, Soul, is another shining example of the technical prowess and imaginative originality of the studio. It is Pixar’s best reminder since 2015’s Inside Out (the previous film by director Pete Docter) that it continues to push forward technical boundaries while also telling stories so inventive and original that it puts nearly every other major studio to shame.
The filmmakers of Soul are not content with their film simply having a unique premise, that being an otherworldly place where souls are crafted before they join with a human body on Earth. Instead, this initial premise serves as a launching point for further unique ideas, including how people get their personalities, where they go when they die, how they find a reason to begin living, and where souls go when they feel lost or “in the zone.” In terms of conceptual brilliance, the soul realm is nearly as original as Riley’s mind in director Pete Docter’s previous masterpiece, Inside Out. The way life is depicted on earth, though more grounded, still manages to be original in its shuffling of the three-act structure. Though the screenplay still operates on principles like the inciting incident and the end of a second act low point, the film subverts some of these expectations as victories change to defeats and defeats reveal themselves as victories. Although the film can have jarring pacing and does not always hit the beats exactly, it is refreshing to see a mainstream animated film veer on the experimental side, whether it is a complete success or not.
In recent years, high-concept films lesser than Soul, such as Bright (2017) or The Discovery (2017), have failed to live up to the promise of their fantastic premises. In large part, this is because these films make the entire film about the premise, focusing primarily on world-building at the expense of engaging characters and storytelling. Thankfully, Soul not only provides stronger world-building than many of these films but also stays rooted in its protagonist, Joe Gardner (played excellently by Jamie Foxx). One feels as though the story of Joe Gardner was one which the writers felt that they had to tell. As such, the inventive, humorous, and heart-warming screenplay shows ample care and affection in conveying Joe’s arc and his relationship with his mischievous companion, 22 (played enthusiastically by Tina Fey).
On a purely technical level, this is perhaps Pixar’s most impressive effort yet. While virtually no animated film can match the production design of the Land of the Dead in Coco (2017) (over one million individually animated lights for a single shot!), Soul certainly tries its best. Visually speaking, the soul realm is breathtaking. The combination of 3D computer graphics (CG) animation with traditional 2D hand-drawn animation, coupled by frame rates based on the differences between the two, is one of the most impressive and unique styles in an animated film since the dawn of fully CG animation. Back on Earth, the attention to detail continues to meet Pixar’s high standards as well. Every ray of light and speck of dust is meticulously placed within each frame, making the world feel, well, real. Additionally, there is a sort of upbeat energy to the world which complements both the expressionistic character designs and the film’s ultimate message of finding the joy in living.
There are two separate scores here: an electronic score for the soul realm and jazz compositions for earth. Though they are quite different, they feel essential as two halves of a whole, in the same way that Joe Gardner’s soul and body are two halves of a whole. It also does not hurt that these atmospheric scores are mixed brilliantly into Dolby Atmos sound technology that truly transplants the viewer into the world on screen. The soul realm composers are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, better known for creating the loud industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails and scoring blood-soaked thrillers and documentaries rather than animated films. The atmosphere they create through pulsing synths, heavy bass, and soothing piano make this one of the best purely electronic scores since this became a feasible option (that is, after the 1980s and 1990s, when horror filmmakers finally realized that synth strings sound terrible and moved onto actual electronic sounds). Jon Batiste, though well respected by modern jazz enthusiasts, has not really seen much attention in the common eye, though that is likely to change after his phenomenal work here. As a former jazz saxophonist and pianist myself, I found Batiste’s improvisational compositions here to be electric, filled with the passionate emotion and skill that only a true jazz musician could muster.
Still, for all its technical wizardry, the most amazing thing about Soul is the, erm, soul of the film: the central emotional truth that one’s purpose in life is not any external goal, but rather, just to appreciate the gift of living. Every human being has a soul, the film tells us, and each of these souls are the same color, come from the same place, and eventually return to the same place as well. Our protagonist may be African American, and he may primarily live his life within the African American community, but ultimately his purpose in life is to live happily, which applies just as much to him as it does to anyone else. Though the film is not perfect in its effort to be racially sensitive, it is commendable that the filmmakers sought ample input from African Americans during production, something which more narcissistic films such as Green Book (2018) cannot claim. While there is an important argument to be made that not having Joe Gardner within his own body for most of the film defeats the purpose of having an African American protagonist, this would also have defeated the film’s ultimate message of every life being equally worth living.
While Soul will likely join the Pixar pantheon of timeless films, it is also one of the best and most inspiring films to be released during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is timely because it reminds us, in a time where death seems to be all around us, that life is worth living: not so much because you need a grand purpose, but because your very existence is a beautiful thing. During this last year, many of us have found ourselves disheartened by the world around us and the way our lives have changed. Soul not only provides us with joyous escapism, which is fleeting, but also with a sense of hope, which is lasting. Of course, as a permanent medium, films should also strive for a sense of timelessness, even if they are focused on the present moment. Luckily, the message of Soul will remain relevant so long as there are human beings with lives to be lived, and its story, characters, and technical wizardry will continue to enrapture viewers long after we leave this pandemic behind.