Everyone assumes animated films made by Disney – or their Pixar Studios brand – are intended for younger audiences.
The colors are bright, the plotlines are largely wonderous in scale, the content is cheerful and easy to follow from start to finish.
Soul, the third Pixar feature from Oscar-winning director Pete Docter, isn’t for kids by any stretch of the imagination although it’s not at all inappropriate. Children just aren’t the intended audience, or at least, not when they are kids’ age.
Docter adapts his screenplay with One Night in Miami screenwriter Kemp Powers to imagine the essence of what gives humanity its purpose and individuals their personality. It’s an existential, thoughtful feature set in a genre that has the freedom to go anywhere and mold the indescribable into a visual wonderland.
Audiences follow Joe, an aspiring jazz musician stuck teaching middle school band whose soul is transported to “the great beyond” just as he’s about to catch his big break. Through a partnership with a new soul simply called 22, Joe must make his way back to his body in time for the performance of a lifetime.
There’s so much heavy material and references to worldly philosophies that younger viewers aren’t going to appreciate Soul as much as they did Docter’s prior films – Academy Award winners Up in 2009 and Inside Out in 2015. Soul lacks the cinematic balance to keep children engaged with the complex narrative themes despite a humorous script that rewards patient viewers.
But for adults who grew up on Disney’s animated classics, Soul strikes a resonant chord of pairing the childlike wonder of animation and twisting it for a lofty thematic purpose.
Much of the burden to make Soul work falls on the shoulders of Jamie Foxx, who carries Joe through an ever-winding tumult of situations with a kind heart, yet exasperated longing for something more. Foxx gives Joe a soft-spoken quality that renders him almost sheepish but serves the character well as he delivers lines with a sly half-smile that will charm viewers to his side.
The Oscar-winning actor provides the right blend of warm humor with introspective dramatic work and the animators capture a similar presence in constructing Joe’s tall, lanky body for the big screen.
Comedienne Tina Fey is a plucky, dynamic choice to voice 22, almost mimicking Ellen Degeneres’ turn in the Finding Nemo films but with a tad more snark.
However, with the majority of the cast representing the African American community and Soul being the first Pixar film with a Black leading character, Fey doesn’t quite feel like an ideal casting choice.
Soul is a transfixing visual delight, popping through an array of animation styles as Joe and 22 bounce from the real world to “the great before” and places in between. Docter and his team of visual artists flawlessly capture the relentless energy of New York City while still invigorating two-dimensional imagery with character that showcases where Joe comes from in his love of music.
A lock for a Best Animated Feature nomination at this year’s Academy Awards, Soul will be a frontrunner in the category along with the AppleTV+ feature Wolfwalkers and the film’s robust score, penned by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as jazz pianist Jon Batiste.
Originally slated for a theatrical release for Christmas 2020, the decision by Disney to move Soul to their Disney+ streaming service at no additional cost offers viewers the opportunity to engage with the film on their own time and in a more relaxed, pensive way that benefits the overall viewing experience.
Children won’t appreciate Soul like they might Docter’s previous Pixar films, but when they grow up, they may find this reflective feature to age like a fine wine.