After exploring the complex world of anthropomorphic emotions in 2015’s Inside Out, Pixar’s Pete Docter takes on the complex world of the afterlife in Soul, which deals with similarly melancholy themes. As in Inside Out, director and co-writer Docter takes on some weighty existential ideas for what is ostensibly a family-focused animated movie, and Soul comes close to making the same case for embracing death that Inside Out makes for embracing sadness. It doesn’t quite go that far, but Soul certainly presents its potential kid audience with a lot of big questions about the meaning of life.
Like Inside Out, it does so in the context of a lively, funny story with engaging characters and impressive world-building. Jamie Foxx voices middle-aged musician and school band teacher Joe Gardner, who’s spent his life dreaming of success as a jazz pianist but has to settle for teaching music to a bunch of apathetic tweens. An offer for a full-time teaching position seems to close the door on his pursuit of a career as a touring musician, but when a former student calls offering him a gig with legendary saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), it renews his hope of finally achieving his lifelong dream.
And then he falls down a manhole and dies. It’s presented in a sort of goofy Looney Tunes way, but the movie never pretends that Joe isn’t mortally wounded, at least temporarily. Joe finds himself in the afterlife, on a conveyor belt toward the requisite white light, but he isn’t ready to stop living just as his life is finally about to begin. So he escapes into another realm, hiding out in the area where new souls receive a kind of training before traveling to Earth to inhabit human bodies. He’s mistaken for one of the trainers and assigned to work with a recalcitrant soul designated 22 (Tina Fey), who’s spent thousands of years stubbornly refusing to begin her human life.
Foxx and Fey have an entertaining dynamic that gets even more amusing when Joe and 22 return to Earth, only for 22 to end up in Joe’s body and Joe to be stuck in the body of a cat. Docter combines some typical body-switching antics with a more nuanced reflection on regret and compromise, as Joe starts to see his life through someone else’s eyes and realize how much he was missing out on by being constantly focused on a future that might never come. Docter explores these mature ideas without ever losing sight of the silly mishaps that will keep his younger audience engaged.
This is a Pixar movie, so of course it’s also a visual marvel, and it’s a shame that no one in the U.S. will get to see it on a big screen (Disney has shifted its domestic release exclusively to streaming on Disney+). The movie captures the overwhelming hustle and bustle of New York City, especially as experienced by the newly arrived 22, but what’s more astounding is its conception of the afterlife, a mix of soft pastel colors and squiggly lines that resemble cubist art. The caretakers of the mystical realm (including a persistent accountant voiced by Rachel House who is tracking Joe and 22) are rendered as glowing two-dimensional line drawings that look like they should be hanging in a modern art museum.
The story lags a bit toward the end as Docter has to balance his thorny concepts with a more optimistic perspective, but the eventual wrap-up is satisfying, if not quite as emotionally powerful as the end of Inside Out. The opening scenes of Docter’s Up are notorious for their tearjerking potential, and Soul further confirms his position as Pixar’s most sensitive auteur. It’s a meditation on death that turns into a celebration of living.