Soul (2020) Review

It’s a matter of personal cinematic irony that I first watched “Soul”, Pixar’s paean to mindfulness and being fully in the moment, in the post-Christmas Dinner tryptophan-infused haze of contentment. I may even have dozed off for a few minutes here or there. All of which should not be taken as a reflection on this latest animated offering, a cosmic philosophical meditation masquerading as a simple body-swap comedy adventure.

Joe Gardner may work as a middle school music teacher, but he lives for jazz. After a successful audition at the Half Note Club, an accident sees Joe’s soul separated from his body and headed to the Great Beyond. Refusing to accept his fate, Joe finds himself instead in the Great Before where he’s mistaken for a soul mentor and tasked with helping 22, a cynical soul who has refused to be born on Earth for millennia. In trying to help 22 find her passion, Joe rediscovers what it means to have a purpose.

As usual, Pixar takes a grand, metaphysical concept and breaks it down to a profoundly human level, here tackling one of the fundamental philiophical questions of existence: what is the meaning of life? Of course, it doesn’t necessarily provide the answer to its question, but it provides a great deal of food for thought, and firmly suggests there may be more in heaven and on Earth than is dreamt of in any deterministic philosophy.

Along the way, we meet the delightfully abstract Jerrys who coordinate the universe beyond our physical and sensory perception and, of course, the jobsworth Terry who is the first to notice thar something is amiss when Joe’s soul goes walkabout but ultimately it’s the story of Joe and his journey of self-rediscovery that powers the movie and his realisation that having a singleminded ‘purpose’ might have blinded him to the full breadth of experiences life offers.

The voice cast, featuring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Jamie Foxx, Rachel House, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Richard Ayoade and – unexpectedly – Graham Norton are as good as you’d expect with Foxx in particular giving a tremendously nuanced and emotive performance but it’s the animation that dazzles, both in the rosily warm-hearted view of New York City and in the more abstract and esoteric evironments and character designs of the Great Beyond and Great Before.

“Soul” is a very welcome return of the bold Pixar of old, mixing big ideas with dazzlingly innovative execution to create works of art which not only invite but reward repeated viewings*, rather than churning out sequels to their biggest hits. Big swing Pixar will always be the best Pixar.

Score 8


* – I watched “Soul” again, giving it my full and undivided attention before writing this review.