After months of waiting, Pixar’s Soul is finally (almost!) here. Originally slated for a summer release (complete with a splashy premiere at the Cannes Film Festival) and later pushed to a Thanksgiving theatrical corridor, Soul will now be making its debut on Disney+ on December 25th. While we will now have to wait a little longer for Pixar’s latest marvel, based on the footage we’ve seen from the film, it will be the first present we unwrap on Christmas morning.
We have watched about 40 minutes of Soul, shown to us ahead of a long-lead press day. Most of what we saw was covered in the initial teaser trailers for the film, where we follow Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a public school music teacher (the opening Disney castle is accompanied by a crummy middle-school-band version of “When You Wish Upon a Star”) in New York who dreams of becoming a jazz musician. On the day he’s finally offered full time work at the school, he also gets the opportunity of a lifetime – playing with one of his favorite bands (led by Angela Bassett and featuring Questlove, as a former student). Coming home from his stellar audition, which sees him entering an ethereal realm when he’s in “the zone,” he falls down an open manhole cover and wakes up in an odd place – The Great Beyond. Joe is now a small, spritely figure (he is now just his soul), desperate to get back to his body (and get to his jazz show). Soon he finds himself in The Great Before, where souls are developed before being sent to earth for human babies and is teamed up with a misfit soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who has no interest in ever going to earth.
And, truthfully, this is a pretty classic Pixar set-up – a mismatched comedy duo sent on a seemingly impossible task, who gain a better understanding of each other along the way. But what hasn’t been shared in the marketing materials, thus far, is the complexity of the characterizations and the visual splendor of the worlds director Pete Docter and his collaborators have created. Soul both fits right at home with the rest of the Pixar oeuvre and stands apart brilliantly, boldly, from every other movie the studio has ever produced. It is an intoxicating mixture.
For one, Soul is the first Pixar film with an African American protagonist. It feels way past due, something that Docter admitted during a recent press day. What’s amazing is that Joe feels totally real and his world is incredibly lived in; Pixar’s version of modern-day New York City is both naturalistic and heightened in a perfectly Pixar-y way. (At one-point Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich was developing a murder mystery set in a Manhattan skyrise with all the main characters being pets. And watching the New York scenes makes you really wish Unkrich, who has since left the studio, had gotten to make that movie.) Joe struggles with the financial viability of his dream and brings his clothes to his mother’s shop to get them washed and repaired (his mother is played by American treasure Phylicia Rashad). When Joe reaches the soul-world, he wanders through a museum instillation filled with moments from his life, where he realizes it hasn’t amounted to much. It’s an incredibly bittersweet moment and adds to his passionate desire to return to his body – he’s got so much work to do. (22’s arc feels equally fascinating but requires more legwork because it’s the reverse. She’s a spirit learning to love humanity, instead of a human learning to connect with his spirituality.)
A lot of the texture for Joe’s life comes from Kemp Powers, a playwright who was brought on to help with the script (credited to Docter, Powers and Mike Jones, a former Variety reporter and current Pixar Senior Story Artist) and who wound up as a co-director. Powers oversaw a cultural group that included outside artists like cinematographer Bradford Young (who also advised on the lighting and staging of the movie) and Black animators and story artists at Pixar, who made sure that the project had a level of authenticity. Powers and the group made sure Soul had soul. And you can feel that in every lovable frame of the movie.
There are other key differences that make Soul apart from the usual Pixar crowd. It’s the first Pete Docter movie in widescreen; all of his other films had much taller frames. Soul looks and feels more cinematic and it carries on in the tradition of last year’s jaw-dropping Toy Story 4, a computer animated movie with a split-diopter shot. Quite frankly, there are things when Joe first goes to the Great Beyond that are truly astounding, including moments that are fully rendered in 2D. (There are also these bizarre characters who look like they’re arty wire sculptures or like 60s UPI-style linework brought to sort-of dimensional life.) The whole thing is stunning and you can feel the whole team pushing the movie to color outside of the lines of what a normal Pixar movie feels like.
Also, instead of Randy Newman or Michael Giacchino providing the score, Docter has tasked Nine Inch Nails confederates Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to create the music for the soul-world, while jazz musician and bandleader Jon Baptiste has created original jazz music for Joe. While that combination might seem bizarre, it is an utter joy – Reznor and Ross’ music is more outwardly chipper than some of their past work, but it’s totally identifiable as them and we are already clamoring for the accompanying soundtrack album. Apparently at some point the two musical styles combine at some point, but we didn’t get to hear that part.
Most of the movie still remains a mystery. A character introduced at the 2019 D23 Expo, played by Daveed Diggs and described as Joe’s scheming neighbor, wasn’t even featured in the footage that was screened. And we’re pretty sure there’s a sizable twist that will serve as the engine for the back half of the movie (we’re hesitant to posit our hypothesis in case it’s right). Even having seen 40 minutes of the movie, there’s a lot of the movie left.
Based on the footage, though, Soul feels unlike anything Pixar has ever accomplished. It is a thematic, spiritual and visual breakthrough, one that is that is unafraid to go to some really weird places (there’s a lot of terminology packed into the first section, not unlike Inside Out, including some far-out concepts) and push the envelope into surreal, occasionally kaleidoscopic imagery. And at the same time, for as wild as it goes, Soul is also deeply human and real. For a while, I was convinced that Soul was going to be Pixar’s 2001. But Soul is more spiritual than scientific and instead of venturing to the farther reaches of the cosmos, Docter, Powers and the entire team are much more interested in headed inwards. Instead of searching for the origin of the species, it’s concerned with what makes us who we are.