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Soul protagonist Joe Gardner plays piano in a darkened room Image: Pixar

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Soul revives the ambitious storytelling that defined Pixar for so long

It’s a story about Black life that questions the meaning of all life on Earth

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

There was a time, not so long ago, where it felt like Pixar Animation Studios was redefining animated movies with every new release, through technical developments and narrative ambition. In an age of visually sophisticated computer graphics, and rich, emotional animated storytelling, it’s easy to forget how dull animated projects could be in the pre-Pixar days, when most American animated filmmakers were devoted to dumbing down Disney movies.

But Pixar stumbled a little after the narrative triumph of Toy Story 3. The studio’s focus shifted toward sequels, while the original films Brave and The Good Dinosaur went through troubled production processes, and came out visibly scarred on the other end. For every inspired act of collective creativity like Inside Out or Coco, there was a decent enough Pixar film that lacked the depth of feeling or focus that made the studio’s name. Even Pixar’s most recent original story, 2020’s Onward, is at best an amiable shaggy-dog tale that seems entirely bent on making epic-fantasy tropes as mundane and workaday as possible.

All of which helps explain why, for longtime Pixar fans, the studio’s new movie Soul feels like such an exciting return to form. The film, which now debuts directly on Disney Plus, is another groundbreaker, with the studio’s first Black protagonist and first focus on Black community, relationships, and art. Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and their co-writer Mike Jones take the film into a startling new visual realm where they can completely indulge their imaginations. But above all, Soul feels like the best Pixar movies used to feel — deeply humanistic, with both silly, kid-friendly humor and a sincere solemnity that feels entirely adult. Docter and Powers weaponize all of this in a story that literally and directly questions the meaning of life.

Soul protagonist Joe watches a busker singing on the subway Image: Pixar

As small as the opening shot is, it’s a reminder of how sophisticated Pixar’s animation can be. The directors start close-up on the eyes of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a Queens jazz musician who makes a part-time living teaching middle-school band class. As he listens to his students’ latest assault on music (a wobbly version of the Disney standard “When You Wish Upon a Star”), Joe looks stricken over the flat notes and off-tempo discordance. But he also keeps a sickly grin pasted on his face as he tries to encourage his kids to care about what they’re doing, and to seek moments where they fall fully into the groove.

That’s a lot of character setup for one facial expression, but the clarity of the look on Joe’s face in that opening moment says a lot about how far Pixar has pulled its CGI characters out of the uncanny valley. In that one look into Joe’s pained, striving eyes, the audience already knows he cares about music, and about imbuing the kids in his class with the passion he feels for it. He wants to encourage and support them. He also can’t quite believe what his life has become. When the school principal offers him a full-time position, complete with benefits, he seems more dismayed than thrilled. What she sees as stability and permanency, he sees as giving up his dream of ever being a real jazz musician.

Joe is a piano player, and a good one, but he never got his break in the industry, and he’s had a pretty dull life while keeping all his other plans on hold. Then a former student, Curley (voiced by Questlove) calls to offer him an audition with imperious saxophonist and bandleader Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, at her most excellently haughty). Joe aces the audition, and is sure his real life is about to start — when he has a fatal accident, and winds up in the Great Hereafter. Trying to get back to his body, he stumbles into the Great Before, where souls develop their personalities and are prepped to head to Earth and be born into bodies. Along with a bratty soul designated 22 (Tina Fey), he hatches a scheme to hijack the process and get back to his life in time to make his mark on jazz.

Soul moves at a fairly breakneck speed for large parts of the story. Joe’s circumstances change constantly in the film’s first two acts — almost the moment audiences take in who he is and where he’s going, they’re given a new setting and a new set of imperatives. But the film never feels disorienting or rushed as a result, and it’s all in service of setting up a contrast with a more languid and evocative third act that slows down long enough to ask some big questions about purpose and meaning.

Soul protagonist Joe faces bandleader Dorothea outside a club Image: Pixar Animation Studios

That doesn’t get in the way of the reckless slapstick comedy that so often marks animated films. Docter is a Pixar vet who’s directed some of the studio’s best features (Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out), and just as all three of those films alternate stirring emotional beats with a lot of rambunctious racing around, Soul keeps the same pacing. The real comedy doesn’t fully kick in until Joe and 22 meet a kind of afterlife hippie pirate named Moonwind (Graham Norton), but his entrance into the story launches a manic subplot that centers on the developing relationship between Joe and 22.

And through 22, the writer-directors get to examine the smallest and most joyous wonders of life. 22 is a visually simple creature, little more than a glowing lollipop with eyes and teeth, lacking all the specificity and grounding detail that the film brings to its various New York neighborhoods. Because the soul has literally never lived, and doesn’t see the appeal of a physical body or life on a flawed and frightening Earth in a gradually failing meat-suit, Joe has the challenge of showing 22 what life is about. Just as he does with his students, he has to do it through his own perspective on life and his own fascinations and loves. He’s brusque and demanding about it all, because he’s operating on a deadline — his first gig with Dorothea is approaching, and he doesn’t want to miss out.

If there’s a flaw to Soul, it’s that the film’s comedy aspects can seem a little outsized next to its more thoughtful moments. Joe’s audition for Dorothea, where he loses himself in creating music, is a sweet wonder, and his arrival in the Great Before is a startling series of visual revelations, as he meets a series of higher beings named Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade, among others) who look equally inspired by Pablo Picasso and Al Hirschfeld. The first act’s transition from the grounded specificity of a Queens school and tailor shop (where Joe’s disapproving mother, voiced by Phylicia Rashad, holds sway) to the comforting plush-pastel fuzziness of the Great Before is all fairly breathtaking. The goofy physical comedy can’t live up to that kind of standard.

But the film’s visual innovations go a long way toward establishing a sense of good will that carries throughout the sillier and more repetitive action. The directors clearly put a lot of thought into designing an other-dimensional world that looks unfamiliar, yet soft and comforting, a kind of cuddly cradle that still feels startlingly alien. Even Joe’s transition from Beyond to Before feels like a showreel, a series of giddy visual experiments where the filmmakers’ imaginations get the kind of free rein that’s becoming more uncommon as animation relentlessly moves closer to visual realism.

The film’s third act pulls the story back together. A simple scene where a character looks up at a tree, with sunlight filtering through the leaves and falling on their face, is as warm and life-affirming as anything Pixar has ever done. Soul takes on questions like “Does fantasy ever live up to reality?” and “Can the choices that give our lives meaning actually satisfy us?”, but its best revelations come from its moments of stillness and simplicity. A late-film montage, as Joe plays piano and remembers scenes from his life, recalls the depth of bittersweet, complicated emotion every Pixar movie used to have.

The Great Before counselors, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, and Terry confront Joe and 22 in Soul Image: Pixar Animation Studios

And that more than anything is what makes Soul feel like a return to Pixar’s most daring days. The studio’s best movies have always focused on different kinds of startling specificity, from the familiar pretend-games of childhood in Toy Story to the wordless space ballet in WALL-E. Soul has big messages and playful imagery, but it’s ultimately the kind of movie that encourages people to appreciate all the small joys of life, to take nothing for granted, and to be aware of the choices they’re making, and the impact those choices have.

Soul will come in for endless analysis of the details that give it shape. One of its subtlest but most daring touches is that it doesn’t have significant white characters at all — it seems natural enough that the people in Joe’s most immediate circle of family and friends are Black, but it’s also notable that the authority figures in his world, from minor characters (the principal, a doctor, a random cop) to major ones (all the Great Before counselors and accountants) are also people of color, from a range of genders and ethnicities. That choice, and the view of Black community life — particularly Joe’s relationship with his mother, and a barbershop scene that defines how Joe relates to his friends — will certainly be studied and examined at length.

Having another Pixar movie that invites and supports that level of scrutiny again feels like a relief. After a wave of Pixar films that made money but didn’t start conversations, that sparked mild interest but not stronger emotions, Soul feels like returning to an old friend for a satisfying talk about life. It’s funny, surprising, and powerful, but above all, it feels like Pixar returning to the core values that used to define it as a creative house, and returning to the inspiring industry leader it used to be.

Soul premieres on Disney Plus on Dec. 25.

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