Jamie Foxx (voice)
Tina Fey (voice)
Angela Bassett (voice)
Graham Norton (voice)
Richard Ayoade (voice)
The Best Animated Feature Oscar winner at the 93rd Academy Awards, Soul was Pixar's 2020 release about an aspiring jazz musician who accidentally ends up in the afterlife and desperately tries to make his way back in time for the most important concert of his life.
Set in New York City, the film sees Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who is given the opportunity by an ex-student to work with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Happy about finally being able to prove himself as a worthy jazz pianist, Joe sets his sights on the audition and the upcoming music club show. Unfortunately, in his mindless jubilation, he missteps into a manhole in the middle of the street and finds his soul transported onto a bridge in an in-between world, heading towards a light. Joe quickly understands that death is what awaits him at the end of the tunnel so he sneaks out and finds himself in another part of that world trying to sneak back into his own body.
This proves to not be such an easy task as he is appointed a quirky, rebellious protégée, a new soul known only as 22 (Tiny Fey) by the counsellors there. 22 has no interest in being sent to the real world so Joe is tasked with changing their mind by inspiring her to want to live. Joe, more concerned about his own reincarnation, instead uses 22 to get back to his body but, after a mixup, he ends up in the body of a cat instead, with 22 being the new Joe.
As ever with Pixar, there's little to complain about here in terms of visuals. The animation is reliably stunning throughout and the Great Beyond, as well as the character design of its inhabitants, is creative and colorful. The story itself explores some really interesting existential questions and it does so with exactly the right amount of heart, humor and intelligence you'd expect from the animation studio.
The film's tone does take a bold leap towards slapstick when Joe ends up in a cat's body and this might prove too silly for some, especially considering the deeper themes the movie attempts to talk about, but even those parts are handled with enough charm that they work. The film never strays from Joe and 22's character arcs so it allows itself some fun detours here and there, much in the same way that Coco never keeps its eye off the big tear-jerker moment it's ultimately going for but still manages to fit in some musical numbers and a murder mystery.
Watching Soul, however, you can't help but feel like these are all roads we've seen Pixar drive down before. There's something very derivative about Soul, despite its undeniable creativity. While you could argue that the film is infinitely more about life than it is about death, the latter is definitely a big theme here and it feels like it has been for quite a few Pixar films by this point: Coco, Onward, Up, even Toy Story 3. The afterlife of Soul is also very reminiscent of the inner worlds from Inside Out. Soul's message, finding what makes you happy and going for it but not letting yourself get bogged down by your "spark", is a valid one but it would have been so much more powerful had this felt a lot less like a Pixar best-of.
Frankly, you can see the wrap-up to the story coming a mile away and even the film's most unexpected event, the cat twist, feels instantly familiar. Thankfully, the characters are so well written (Graham Norton's hippie sign-twirler is especially good fun) and the visuals are so pretty that the film still makes for a good watch.
Soul is a beautiful looking film with top-notch animation and an excellent cast. Pixar's reluctance to jump out of its comfort zone both stylistically and in terms of its storytelling, however, distracts from its thoughtful message and that's a bit of a shame, even if the film remains very solid and well worth watching. This should not be as predictable as it is but you won't have a bad time sitting through it.
Not Pixar's best but still decent.