Joe Gardner has reached a rather classic dilemma for those in the world of work — do you follow safety, or passion? Joe (voiced by Jaime Foxx) chooses the latter, determined to follow his dream of being a player in a jazz band, like his father before him. In the latest Pixar feature film Soul, co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers explore multiple questions about living and its purpose, and how sometimes practicality and satisfaction aren’t mutually exclusive. For a while, Soul is a glimpse of a radically different kind of Pixar film — one that is comfortable with taking a breath, animating more “mundane” material, in patient contemplation. It immediately entrances with a loving depiction of the act of playing music, with sumptuous piano compositions from Jon Batiste and a stunning visual depiction of the rapture Joe experiences when playing — the sounds he plays replicated in colors that evoke synesthesia, washing everything else away. And then just a minute later, Joe falls down a manhole and dies.
The story then lands in “The Great Before,” a “before-life” space instead of an afterlife, the making of all things rather than the unmaking. It’s here that Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul yet to take form who has no interest in going to Earth, and it becomes Joe’s job to convince them. The Great Before recalls Pixar’s Inside Out via the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, both visually and in its depiction of abstract concepts as mechanical bureaucracies. For those tired of Pixar’s pursuit of photorealism, there’s some ambitious change-ups in the studio’s house style on display here, evident in the moment Joe steps off those great otherworldly stairs, travelling through a Stargate-like portal of abstract shapes.
But for all that cosmic wonder, the film’s depictions of Black life might be the most exciting thing about it. The film takes great care to make each communal space — the barbershop, the jazz club, his mother’s store — all feel warm and lived in. However it’s because of these specificities (thanks to the involvement of Powers) that it’s so disappointing that much of Soul partakes in a peculiar trope of animation where Black people are denied their own bodies, whether by being turned into a frog in The Princess and the Frog, a bird in Spies in Disguise, or in this case, an amorphous soul (and later a cat). At least with Joe’s transformation into a mostly formless blob there’s a sort of beauty to how it ties into the film’s point, that your very shape and purpose are things you create for yourself.
But then it doubles down with a second act detour into body swap comedy. In a decade of film where Jordan Peele’s Get Out became part of our cultural lexicon, it makes one wonder why someone didn’t think through the plot device of a character voiced by a white actress piloting a Black man’s body. With all the film’s canniness about Black living, to see such a moment completely divorced from any kind of political thought feels completely bizarre and somewhat infuriating in how easily it could have been avoided. Fey as a voice performer already feels inessential amongst a far more interesting and precisely chosen cast, and the lampshading of 22 sounding like a white woman only serves to emphasize that point. Granted, children probably won’t be thinking about this amongst all the (fun, often clever) gags, but this part of the film feels meandering and superfluous. From this point onward, Soul almost completely comes apart, as Docter and Powers juggle what feels like two separate narrative conceits, ones that don’t always compliment each other perfectly.
On one hand, the craft and the concept is ambitious and exciting, crammed with imaginative imagery and some fascinating ideas — not least of all through Pixar’s usual smuggling of existentialism to children. But it shortchanges itself at every turn by overextending itself; attempts to hold the interest of its audience become an incoherent bombardment that leaves those ideas half-formed, undermined by Soul’s division of interests. That hyperactivity ultimately feels like a lack of confidence in itself, and a lack of trust in its audience’s attentiveness. It’s disappointing when the simple joy of Joe figuring out the balance of his teaching and his playing, and his interactions with his family and friends, is so much more enticing.
Soul will be available to stream on Disney+ starting Christmas Day.