The very first scene of Pixar’s very first film, Toy Story, is an accomplishment in storytelling unlike anything we had ever seen in animation and children’s entertainment up to that point in 1995. The single scene lasts 20 minutes and not only builds a completely original world, but sets up the premise so well that everything that follows is pure payoff. Since then, the studio has become a paradigm for how to tell a story, producing a near-unbroken chain of revolutionary and successful films that pushed the boundaries of plot and premise to where you often wondered if they had anything left to prove.
With Soul, Pixar doesn’t concern itself with attaching any sort of narrative to its metaphysicality or earnest attempts to convert its concept to conventions the audience is familiar with, or expecting. Instead, the film focuses on conveying ideas and emotions rather than straightforward storyboarding. While it does manage to fit some of that in, too, it mostly floats along and drifts through its premise with surrealism and artistry unlike anything Pixar has ever done. Seriously.
Parents should know that Soul isn’t really for kids. Masked as a family film by its exterior, you can make a claim Pixar snuck one in. Dark, existential, and grim, the movie has little that’s relatable for younger audiences or what they’d be going through. We follow Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged man who’s always dreamed of being a jazz musician, but has “settled” as a middle school band teacher. Then suddenly he falls to his death on the day he finally gets his big chance to play with a famous sax player. Tough break, huh?
On his way up to Heaven he escapes the celestial road and winds up in a mentorship program for new souls, where dead persons of good Earthly merit help prepare unborn souls prior to them finding their newborn body. Each soul is arbitrarily and randomly assigned to learn different personality traits to fill out their personality badge, which is ultimately their ticket to Earth. However, one of their traits must be discovered for themselves. Their last “badge” comes from the spark they find with the help of their mentors. This will inform the most what interests them on Earth. Joe’s spark, for instance, is music.
After he panics and grabs the name tag of a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Joe ends up becoming mentor to soul 22 (Tiny Fey), a flippant, stubborn soul who has spent hundreds of years in pre-existence trying to find her spark. Or, should I say, refusing to find her spark. She’s been helped by the greats: Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, but just pesters them until they give up. However, she becomes a bit curious why all these great souls are excited to be dead while Joe, a disheartened soul, wants to go on living. So she helps him get back to Earth, but due to a mix-up ends up inside of his body instead, while Joe ends up inside the body of a cat.
Soul isn’t unpredictable, but the way it gets to its marks almost always remains uncertain. It finds the through line easily and never diverts from it, but once we’re outside of the mandatory exposition of the first 10 minutes, the plot opens up gradually not so much to further the story but to properly diagram this abstract premise. It then concentrates on theme-building and exploring its immense depth, often building its subtle plot consequentially and incidentally rather than in a functional and obvious manner.
Instead of placing the events of the film in a fictional or indistinguishable town, Soul very much takes place in New York City, almost using the city as a character itself, influencing the movie’s attitude and its jazz roots. There’s a whole lot underneath the surface of the main plot, which can make the film hard to digest at times, but the beauty of Soul isn’t in Pixar’s trademark masterful storytelling but in how it can paint a way for us to become absorbed in thought and even ponder its content long after we walk away from it.
Soul is the rare film that doesn’t have an antagonist (Pixar’s own Finding Nemo does this as well). I mean, existentialism is conflicting enough. And outside of a few moments of shoehorned conflict, it really doesn’t focus on a lot of these little go-to elements we often see in movies – especially animated ones – but on how we think about the subject matter and admire this inventive world we’ve been dropped into. This result comes directly from the filmmakers trying to find a way to avoid cliches for their admittedly not-uncommon themes about our purpose in life and achieving our dreams, while perhaps finding others in the process and filling out their message in a more realized way.
If your dream is to play at Carnegie Hall, then what happens to your life once you’ve achieved that? Your dreams shouldn’t be one defining moment that is to be fulfilled, but the journey you take and who (of what) crosses your path on the way to getting there. If you put all your eggs into one basket then you’ll miss the forest for the trees. However, as much as this film has to say, it offers its message without ever feeling the need to definitively spell anything out.
At one point, a jazz saxophonist tells a parable about a small fish who asks a big fish where the ocean is. The big fish informs him that he’s already in the ocean, to which the small fish replies, “This is just water. I want the ocean.”
I ruminated on that one for several minutes as the film kept pressing on. And then began to wonder who would have the cojones to put a line like that in a supposed children’s movie. Even as an adult, I had to wrap my head around the analogy, especially within the context of this story. This comes just prior to the film’s denouement, which only continues to add to the overall pensiveness.
Film, at its core, is a manipulation of space and time, things Pixar has tinkered with in recent outings with the likes of Coco and Onward and, of course, the critically-acclaimed Inside Out. Their 2015 film was a super-high-concept kids movie, yes, but it wasn’t really all that existential, and definitely not near-experimental. Most of all, it still abides by certain filmmaking commandments and obligations. Soul, however, is the ambitious film that people thought Inside Out was.
It helps that both films share the same director and co-writer, Pete Docter, who benefits from the audacity of his previous endeavors, pushing the envelope even further here. There’s a lot about Soul that’s unconventional, if not almost all of it. With a free-form and, dare I say, jazzy execution that’s oddly reminiscent of perhaps the king of existential cinema, The Seventh Seal, in its poignant suggestions and in how it discreetly develops its story; Soul is Ingmar Bergman lite…and animated.
Like many true works of art, Soul won’t appeal to everyone, especially at first, but promises to bring something different and new with each subsequent viewing. Much like Toy Story did, Soul feels like it has the potential to change our expectations of animation and film as a whole. While not Pixar’s most gleefully entertaining movie to date, it’s easily their most demanding and downright unheeding they’ve ever made. Yet, anyway.