It's hard to look at Pixar's extended filmography throughout the years, and not find several instances of sheer brilliance. This is not a novel process at all, the studio has been widely celebrated with numerous awards, and spawned directors like Brad Bird, who has found great success with live-action since leaving Pixar. All of this is to say, that starting a review with; "you know, Pixar made another beautiful, heartfelt and deeply emotionally affecting movie", could sensibly be met with the reply; "yeah, duh?".
But that is what Soul is, the brand new Pete Docter-directed movie, cut from the same cloth as the highly successful Inside Out, exploring the human condition through animation and child-like wonder. And it's safe to say, that while Pixar has made less stellar films, such as The Good Dinosaur or some of the Cars movies, this is not one of them.
Unlike Inside Out, which hones in directly on the transition from child to adulthood, and how our memories and feelings frame our consciousness, Soul is about death, and ultimately about life. The themes are indeed grand, perhaps grander than the studio has ever attempted before, but the beating heart of the story is its affecting and charmingly flawed main protagonist, Joe Gardener. Joe is a man in his forties, chasing the dream of becoming a famous and celebrated jazz pianist. The road towards this goal has been rough, but after finally catching his big break, he steps down an open manhole cover - and well, he dies. But on the escalator to the great beyond, Joe escapes, seemingly unable to accept his demise, and steps beyond the veil. It is here he becomes acquainted with the factory, the process behind the creation of the human soul. He meets a yet-to-be-born one too, called 22, and together they embark on a journey to return Carl to his body, and perhaps teach 22 what all this fuss about "life" is.
In many ways, it's approach to... well, approaching these grand themes is very similar to Inside Out. You have an ethereal, almost incomprehensibly complex subject matter, brought into focus by a colourful and understandable mythical framework. In Inside Out, the feelings were characters, here, souls are created in a cutesy factory, where each one must seek out its personal spark, that special something that gives you the appetite to live. It's a tried and true formula, if not a bit recognisable at this point, seeing as even something like The Boss Baby does something similar. Emotionally affecting subject matter - brought into focus by imaginative otherworldly secret universes. It works, it resonates as an allegory, but it's familiar too, make no mistake.
Still, without spoiling too much, while Soul is more blunt in its messaging, it's message is a timeless one, a love letter to life, and not the Instagram-life, but actual life that is to be savoured in every moment, the good and the bad, the grand moments, and the small insignificant routines we tend to take for granted. While the movie does take a while to properly tune in on the right emotional frequencies, relegating most of its tear-jerking to the back half, it's involving, effective, and incredibly poignant.
And the journey there isn't too shabby either. Perhaps for some, the movie does lack a more child friendly dimension, and while it is an inherent strength for Pixar to be able to appeal to such a wide viewership, which offers up entirely different experiences depending on your age, it's not actually a requirement, nor is it necessary. I'm an adult, and the movie's message and strategy resonated with me. Whether your seven year old thinks the same? Well, that's hard to tell.
Regardless, they do get to see a movie that is exceptionally crafted. It is without a doubt Pixar's most beautiful picture to date, with gorgeous visual design and animation quality. It's both a caricature and a deeply realistic portrayal, both lushly brought to life and simple. In addition, Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey put in amazing performances as Gardener and 22, followed by a great wider cast consisting of Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Rachel House and Alice Braga.
Soul does have the kind of universal quality that Pixar's very best works are known for, and could end standing the test of time, and be considered among the very best the studio has offered in years. There are a few hurdles to get there though. For one, the antagonist is rather flimsy, and ends up doing very little with the screen time given, even if Rachel House is a voice-acting powerhouse, and the limited scope of its human story can seem at odds to the grander scale of its narrative ambition at times. Again, these two sides do end up amplifying each other, but it does take a while to get there.
Still, Soul is excellent, and definitely one of the better movies of the year. Furthermore, it again proves that within Pixar, despite theme parks, merchandise sales, million dollar franchises and an increasing focus on Disney+ series material, Pixar is a studio to be respected, celebrated and loved. Their movies are still just magical.