Pixar's 'Soul' brings theater-level joy to your home

Brad Keefe

It’s not even a year that Pixar can save, but I’m still grateful for the animation studio.

I can say that Pixar’s latest movie, “Soul” is a visual feast that deserves to be seen on a big screen, which is probably  something I’ve said in some form or another hundreds of times over the last 20 years. I review a lot of movies; a lot of them deserve to be seen on a big screen.

“Soul” is among those, another gorgeous Pixar creation where you can get lost in the little details that aren’t meant to be flashy but reveal the results of hours upon hours of talented labor.

If you and your family could go see “Soul” at a movie theater after spending a wonderful Christmas Day with loved ones around a big home-cooked meal and presents, I would tell you you should do that.

But it’s 2020 and you can stream “Soul” at home on Disney+, and you should also do that.

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“Soul” fits in the Pixar legacy in ways that its last movie — and one of the last movies I saw in a movie theater with human beings — did not. “Onward” was fine. Magical it was not. 

Pixar is at its most magical when it's focused on storytelling. “Soul” director and co-writer Pete Docter has been at the helm for a couple of the studio’s best with “Up” and “Inside Out.” The latter may be the best touchpoint for “Soul,” a heady concept with a warmly sweet delivery that worked on multiple levels.

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle school music teacher who shares his passion with students of varying levels of talent. He also has a deep-seated love of jazz that started in his youth, and which he aims to pass on.

But when a former student who appreciated Joe’s passion connects him with a dream gig as a session performer, Joe can’t contain his excitement.

Opening act and essentially the movie, but spoiler: Joe dies.

It’s important to state, both for parents as well as people who have had too many feelings to feel in 2020, Joe’s death in the opening minutes of “Soul” is in no way comparable to the gut punch Docter dropped on us with Ellie’s death at the beginning of “Up.” I promise there is no uncontrollable sobbing and emotional damage here.

That’s because “Soul” is ostensibly about the world after death, as Joe finds himself on the escalator to the afterlife only to say, nope, not yet, and sidestep the inevitable and become a mentor to a soul (voiced by Tina Fey) who hasn’t yet stepped into our reality.

“Soul” has a jazz setup, which is appropriate given the ways the story improvises. It’s at least three different movies playing at the same time, and it all comes together.

The setup belies a wild early twist into a surreal and, well, trippy version of the afterlife, complete with some lowkey visual touches that are not showing off the latest in hyper-realistic computer animation. They’re the most abstract artistic touches Pixar has ever dabbled in.

Things move into a more traditional Pixar mood, buoyed by the popping if unexpected chemistry between Foxx and Fey, along with a wealth of solid supporting characters.

The closing act is just lovely and exactly what we need in this moment, even if the filmmakers had no idea what this moment would be.

“Soul” is a return to Pixar’s roots of storytelling above all, but it also leaves me a bit melancholy. It’s theater-level good, among Pixar’s best and thus an Oscar-level animated film. Yet it’s arriving in our homes because these are the strangest times. This is not “direct-to-streaming” level work.

Movies like this will not always exist in this new normal. Enjoy this one. Happy Christmas.


Streaming on Disney+ starting on Christmas Day

4 stars out of 5