Continuing the tradition of existentialist Pixar, the studio's latest Soul asks big questions about life and the tension between meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, and ironically, Soul spends most of its time meandering without direction before landing on a nearly note-perfect ending. The final moments of Soul are exceptional, but its brutal middle and the disregard of its arresting introductory setting keeps Soul from having one.
Streaming on Disney+ on Christmas Day, Soul is the fourth movie directed by Peter Docter, whose films Monsters, Inc. (2001), Up (2009), and Inside Out (2015) are among the studio's best. A spiritual storyteller (Docter is a devout Christian and, again, directed Up), Soul is a nexus point for Docter's voice, which gets as close to a faith movie as possible without ever touching upon religion.
In Soul, part-time music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) gets the chance of a lifetime when he is invited by a former student, Curly (Questlove) to play for superstar musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Having long avoided stable, full-time work in the name of music — to the ire of his mother (Phylicia Rashad) — Joe feels his life is finally about to begin. And then, it ends.
Suddenly, Joe's soul (a diminutive Casper the Friendly Ghost-like figure) wakes up in the "Great Beyond," a sci-fi afterlife ruled by kindly "soul counselors," all named Jerry and drawn like neon doodles. Mistaken for another of the recently deceased, Joe is assigned to mentor "22" (Tina Fey), a troublesome soul unwilling to graduate past the "Great Before" and begin life on Earth. The two strike a deal: Get 22 their certification, and Joe can use it as a pass to return to Earth and play his dream gig.
I wish Soul were as simple as that, but the movie gets even busier and so much messier from there that Soul feels produced from a second draft. There's an out-of-nowhere body-switching plot, where 22 ends up in Joe's body and Joe in a cat, that feels like Pixar resorting to the cheaper storytelling employed by its rivals in the animation world. (This late Act 2 twist conjures up predictable laughs like Joe meowing and 22 falling in love with a slice of New York pizza.) There are also many confusing rules about the Great Beyond/Before that are difficult to keep track of as the plot moves ruthlessly forward. When Graham Norton came in as a rebel pirate soul — who is also a corner sign swinger on Earth — I yielded and became a living "I GUESS" meme.
Ultimately, Soul's gravest sin is its lack of a clear identity. It feels like several different movies in one slapped-together package, and nothing coalesces. What starts out as a lively, textured story about New York jazz, Black culture, and the pursuit of dreams morphs into an unintelligible science-fiction adventure. The whiplash is severe. The soundtrack, which pivots from melodic jazz on Earth to '80s retrowave synths in the Great Beyond, further enforces the lack of thematic unity in the movie's many divergent tones.
It's unfortunate because there are good movies to be spun from Soul's differing ideas. A movie centered around Joe navigating the jazz scene of modern New York is a killer premise on its own, with plenty of potential for conflict and comedy without ghosts hanging around. (It should be said that Soul's depiction of New York is impressively vivid. A lengthy scene at a barbershop is lovingly reminiscent of Coming to America, and Soul is the first time I've ever seen a Knicks snapback rendered in CGI.) All the same, a movie about the Great Beyond/Before, with its amusing framing as a bureaucratic system a la Terry Gilliam's Brazil, is also ripe as a family comedy. How Soul meshes these flavors that never compliment each other results in an empty viewing experience.
The movie's few clever gags aren't enough to redeem it either. But what does is the ending. Despite the muddy foundation its story is built on, Soul miraculously lands at its destination: That life isn't about accomplishments and achievements, but how one chooses to live it. Its final statement — life is worth living no matter what — is a needed lesson to take away as we reach the end of a pandemic-stricken year and barreling towards a depressing, lonely holiday season. The final minutes of Soul are the most beautiful and life-affirming minutes I've felt all this year, even more so than the recent Wonder Woman 1984. Soul may not be as complete as Warner Bros.' competing holiday blockbuster, but it does nail the emotions just as well.
Mostly out of tune and indecisive in the story it wants to tell, Soul is still an effective feel-good movie that will satisfy families this winter. Despite its many flaws, it can be quite funny. It just isn't magical despite its best efforts, falling short of admittedly high expectations from Pixar and a director like Peter Docter. In a film that tries to ask unwieldy and daunting questions, like, "What is a life worth living?" Soul's head is too far in the clouds to be brought down to Earth.
Soul will stream on Disney+ on December 25.