Surging with imagination and narrative clout, Soul is the spark that brings Pixar back in form.

Ever wondered what your true purpose is in life? In its modest 100 minutes of runtime, this is the first of many questions Soul will throw at you; Questions that we have been asking since childhood, but that which no sage or science has ever been able to answer convincingly. In an attempt to answer some of these questions, the studio steers away from making this a visually groundbreaking masterpiece, and instead builds on its own purpose with a combination of skill, grace and narrative clout that we once loved about Pixar.

This wouldn’t be the first time Pixar (and owner Disney) tackled grand themes of existence on a deep and metaphysical level. Inside Out in 2015, followed by Coco in 2017 which both won Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, were also similarly themed but delicate in their approach in narrating the frailty of love, loss and life. And if we go even further back, so were Academy Award winning animations Wall-E and Up. So it isn’t always noise and big bucks visuals from Pixar to keep kids thrilled, while parents catch a much needed snooze. And yet, the best Pixar films have historically been the ones that strike a balance between delighting children while giving adults something to think about. Soul leans heavily towards the latter.

That warning aside, Pixar veteran director Pete Doctor (Up and Inside Out) also sets a backdrop that perfectly resonates with the title of this film – New York. Perfect because of the noise, crowd, clutter, traffic, pedestrians, and perpetual rush of everything that we have always complained about but miss so dearly now, not just in New York, but also globally. As such, the ache of urban wanderlust is like a shot in the arm when the film opens in New York and when we first meet Joe Gardner (Voiced by Jamie Foxx). Joe is a middle school music teacher caught between his day job and aspirations of a career in jazz music. Despite objection from his mother (Phylicia Rashad), Joe lands an impressive audition with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), but on his way to his first performance, has an accident that sends his soul into the Great Beyond.

We call it “limbo” which in Latin refers to purgatory, a state of being between heaven and hell. In the film, Joe cannot come to terms with the thought of his own death, so escapes from the Great Beyond but ends up in the Great Before, a place where souls are prepped for life as humans. In the ensuing process, Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey) who has long resisted being incarnated as a human. 22 is scared of everything she knows about humanity, while Joe believes he has a second chance at finding his reason to exist. Eventually, Joe and 22 make their way to Earth, but not in the way we expect. It’s around this point in the film where Soul really starts to surge, and then swell to a thought provoking and emotional level that brings the whole idea to its expressive peak. The answer – if you get it – is astounding, but also like something that has been staring at you in the face all along.

Soul is aware of its boundaries in not being too ambitious (pun intended). Calling this film inventive would be a stretch, but at the same time, this is Pixar back in form with a screenplay that reaches beyond its coveted expression for realism. Add to that an upbeat and original musical score, a plethora of talented voice actors in madcap supporting roles, and a creative team that blends artistry with reality in a creative “spark” that ignites inspiration and joy, and you are literally watching a film with all that jazz.

Rating: ★★★★½

Soul trailer

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.