Pixar really had a mixed 2010s, didn’t they? Starting with the emotional highs of Toy Story 3 and then going straight into the creative lows of Cars 2, the rest of the decade was marred by a reliance on sequels that didn’t live up to their predecessors (Incredibles 2, Finding Dory) and new stories that lacked the creativity and passion of the animation giant’s earlier work (Brave, The Good Dinosaur).
However, there were two exceptions: 2015’s Inside Out, an astonishingly inventive journey into the mind of a teenage girl and 2017’s Coco, a diverse and moving study of death.
And it feels like the very best of both have come together to produce Soul: the most unusual, arresting, and downright enjoyable film I saw in 2020 (not that there were many options).
Soul is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who dreams of being a great jazz musician but is forced to take a thankless job as a music teacher to pay the bills. As he is finally about to get his big break playing with a legendary saxophonist, he has an accident and finds himself heading to “The Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death and that his life was “meaningless,” Joe fights to return his soul to his body – and learns to appreciate life in a way he never did before.
It’s difficult to explain the plot of Soul without spoiling everything, so the most that I can say is: it keeps on surprising you all the time. Trailers have focused on the “afterlife” part of the plot, where Joe, as a glowing blue blob, blunders around the astral plane, but the action mainly takes place in New York.
When Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who refuses to be born on Earth as she has no passion for life, I initially was worried that the film would regress into a standard “odd couple must learn to get along” plot; but their relationship turns out to be far more than that, even when it becomes a body-swap comedy of all things.
My one complaint is that Fey feels miscast as 22. A younger actor would have suited the character’s immaturity better, and having a white woman stealing a Black man’s body for a large chunk of the plot was a deeply questionable choice. But other than that, the cast is a joy to listen to – and I wasn’t expecting Graham Norton of all people to pop up! Above all, Soul triumphs as a beautiful piece of art.
The Great Beyond and Great Before look like Heaven as imagined by Steve Jobs: abstract, alien yet somehow comforting. The score switches between warm jazz for the Earth scenes and cold synths for the soul realm without ever seeming disjointed.
The story is crafted to perfection. Nothing from this studio has moved me like this since Andy departed with his toys ten years ago. Here’s hoping that Pixar, and all of us, have a better time in the 2020s.
Mia Crombleholme is a journalism graduate from the UK. She has written for several online publications and blogs about film, music, and life. Follow her on Twitter here.