With Soul, Pete Docter positions himself as Pixar’s official conceptualizer of the elusive inner lives of humanity. That’s a lofty pronouncement, to be sure, and is especially hoity-toity to apply it to films that are, at their cores, family entertainment. What other conclusion, though, can be drawn when considering this new film’s existential doodles alongside the anthropomorphized inner being of Docter’s previous directorial effort, Inside Out? Docter looks into his own psyche and spies blobby babblers bounding around.
Soul centers on Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), an aspiring jazz musician who’s never gotten his big break and been reduced to teaching band classes populated with squawking middle schoolers. In a morbid twist, Joe finally gets the opportunity he’s been longing for, a gig with an esteemed combo at a cool New York City club, and immediately meets a tragic demise. On the afterlife escalator to the heavens, Joe bolts, accidentally finding himself in the staging area for new souls bound for Earth. In a case of mistaken identity that calls into question the basic functioning of the spiritual staging ground, Joe is assigned to mentor 22 (Tina Fey), a snarky little being with millennia of failed attempts to prep her for the mortal coil. Initially combative, they just might learn something from each other along the way, with some boisterous high jinks that can only be realized with stylized digital drawings.
Working with co-director Kemp Powers, Docter moves the film with a blithe energy and the trademark Pixar storytelling snap. But there’s also something off in its levels of imagination, giving the impression that it’s pulled together from half-remembered concepts from earlier movies. Its attempts at measuring up humanity and offering a prescription for a more contented life wind up delivering a muddled message. There’s a grace in appreciating the little things, but I’m not sure it requires implicitly chastising the aspiration to something more. That’s surely not what Docter’s trying to convey, and yet there it is. The film is amusing and often visually astonishing. At the same time, it is part of the recent Pixar trend of coming across as somewhat rote. Soul is like a slowly deflating balloon: colorful but a bit sad and disappointing, too.