Soul Review: A Gorgeous, Existential Exploration That Slightly Muddles Its Message

Deeply introspective and even philosophic stories are not uncommon offerings for Pixar. Many of the animation studios' works take on issues of the human condition by asking serious questions -- either directly or subtly, in more nuanced fashion across the storytelling. For filmmaker Pete Docter, that's especially true for films such as Inside Out, Up, and Monsters Inc., so it's no surprise that Soul takes a crack at what might be the most introspective question of all: what makes you, you? And while Soul may not quite sort out that question in the most seamless and satisfying way as compared to some of those previous films, it still offers a lot of heart, a lot of hope, and gives audiences a perspective that is long overdue.

In Soul, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a part-time music teacher in New York City but he really wants to be a full-time jazz musician. Jazz is his spark, his reason for living, and he's been hoping for most of his life to catch his big break. He finally gets that big break, but before he can actually enjoy it, tragedy happens, sending him away from this mortal coil to where he ends up meeting a new soul, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) who hasn't yet lived and honestly doesn't even want to. This combination gives viewers two opposite ends of the experience -- someone who doesn't want to die and someone who doesn't even want to live -- and sees Joe trying to help 22 find her "spark," though along the way ends up learning about what it really means to live himself.

It's a fantastic premise, one made even more fascinating in that it's told through the life of Pixar's first Black lead, but in its execution, things start to unravel a bit. Pretty quickly, the film starts being less about Joe's character development and his journey, despite it being his life that is the frame for things, and instead focuses more on 22 and her development. It's a little bit of a bait-and-switch that may not sit well with some viewers, even though there are some important questions and themes about the whole experience of life that come into play.

The film also muddles things a bit by adding elements that are somewhat unnecessary. Soul is a film that does not need a villain, though the story attempts to provide one by way of Terry, a soul counter in the Great Beyond determined to stop Joe in his attempts to live. While the concept of Terry is a fantastic idea, the story doesn't utilize it nearly enough, to the point that the time spent on the idea feels wasted -- especially when there are pockets of Joe's world that could better use that time to more fully develop his story. And it's the underdevelopment of some of Joe's story that also feels like a miss, given how authentic and richly developed other aspects are.

It's that richness that makes Soul very much worth its run time despite the story's general weaknesses. The New York City of Soul looks so real and so authentic that you might, for a moment, forget you're watching animation. Soul is easily one of the most visually appealing Pixar films to date. The sounds of the film are also fantastic, with sleek jazz as well as an absolutely mind-blowingly good score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The voice talent in the film is also absolutely stellar. Foxx's Joe is a delight and Angela Bassett's jazz musician Dorthea Williams is just so cool and so beautifully brought to life that it's easy to forget this is animation -- her presence is palpable.

It's the truly excellent elements of Soul as well as the thought-provoking question that makes the film a solid one. Even though it's a little rough in some respects and there's plenty of underutilized elements, not to mention a finale that doesn't quite stick the landing, the big questions that the film asks create an engaging pulse, encouraging viewers to think about themselves and their own lives in a way that is both serious and uplifting, all done with an uplifting sincerity that is never preachy. It may not be the most polished Pixar offering, but it's a good one.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Soul debuts on Disney+ on December 25th.