Review: Soul (2020)

Directors: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Screenwriters: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Starring: [voices of] Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga
Genres: Animation, Drama, Comedy
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some language
Release Date: 12/25/20 (Streaming)
Runtime: 1h 40min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Where to Watch: Disney+
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Animated Feature, Original Score, Original Screenplay; Possible–Picture, Sound

Soul has had to deal with multiple delays; first, it was meant to be released last summer, about six months after Pixar’s previous film, Onward. Then, it was pushed until late fall, and finally, it was decided to release it solely (sorry for the pun!) on Disney+. Unfortunately, that does require a subscription to a streaming service, but Disney+ is actually one of the best ones out there, with access to Disney’s entire catalogue (dating back to the early days), as well as everything in the Marvel and Star Wars universes. 

Soul was released on Christmas Day, and we watched it the day after (Wonder Woman 1984 was our Christmas flick of choice). There was a lot of anticipation and hype leading up to this one, and not just because of its delays; the film had received mostly rave reviews, which of course is hardly a rarity for Pixar. They’ve set such a high bar for themselves that we as viewers not only assume but expect every one of their films to be at times heartwarming, funny, clever, and wholly original — and Soul succeeds in all of these regards. Although I wouldn’t put it up there in the upper tier — along with films like Inside Out and WALL-E — it still lives up to what we’ve come to expect of Pixar. 

With Pixar mastermind Pete Docter as a co-writer/director, we know Soul will contain moments of brilliance, and it certainly does. Some people have said that the middle of the film — which is unexpectedly weird — sags, but I found it to be utterly enjoyable, albeit not perfect. I was practically crying laughing during this segment, which also contains plenty of more dramatic, emotional heft. That’s not just due to the script — co-penned by Mike Jones and One Night in Miami playwright/screenwriter Kemp Powers — but also due to the terrific work of the voice cast, lead by a never-better Jamie Foxx as Joe, Pixar’s first African American lead. He uses his talent for both comedy and drama to great effect here, making Joe a sympathetic character for whom you can root. 

Tina Fey voices the co-lead, Soul #22, and brings her signature manic wit to a character who is meant to be gender- and race-ambiguous. (Side note: I can see how others are bummed that 22 is voice by a white woman, instead of a person of color, and I understand that criticism, but there’s a brilliant line about this in the film). Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, and others fill out the rest of the talented voice cast. I definitely appreciate Pixar’s commitment to diversity here, too. The supporting characters sometimes shine just as much as the leads.

Soul may actually be Pixar’s most adult movie yet, although I can see that there’s enough physical comedy in the middle to keep children interested. Obviously, younger children won’t understand the film’s deeper themes, but they don’t need to; learning about life’s purpose is not something with which children are particularly concerned. Soul is also technically impressive, from the two-part score — scored by Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste — to the animation and design of both the “Great Before” (before souls come to Earth) and the real world. While the Great Before’s design is reminiscent of what we see in Inside Out, this design is still very much its own. 

It’s best to watch this movie knowing as little as possible about the various twists and such. Soul may not be the greatest Pixar film of all time, but it’s still excellent.