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Soul is Pixar’s most visually inventive film, and one of its most poignant

The newest from the animation studio combines jazz, comedy, and metaphysical inquiry in one glorious package.

Small blue characters walk around beneath giant line-drawn characters.
Souls, in Soul.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Midway through Soul, our hero, Joe — or, sort of Joe, but you’ll have to watch the movie to know what I mean — is sitting in a barbershop, in desperate need of a haircut before a big make-or-break gig that night. Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a jazz pianist whose performance career has never really gotten off the ground; to make ends meet, he’s been teaching middle school band. But he’s confident that he was put on this earth to play jazz, and tonight’s gig might finally be his chance.

Joe’s barber, Dez (voiced by Donnell Rawlings), is talking about his own life, something the pair have never really discussed before. Dez wanted to be a veterinarian when he was younger, following his discharge from the Navy. But his daughter got sick, and, as he says, “barber school is a lot cheaper than veterinarian school.”

Joe is surprised — wasn’t Dez born to be a barber? Isn’t that his purpose? He’s great at it, and he seems to love it so much. “That’s too bad. Now you’re stuck as a barber, and you’re unhappy,” Joe says to Dez.

But Dez tells him to slow his roll, because, as he says, he’s “happy as a clam” doing what he does. Sure, it wasn’t his dream to be a barber; he never felt like it was his “calling.” But he gets to talk to interesting people all day and make folks happy. Dez loves his life. And Joe leaves the shop with a lot to ponder.

That’s the philosophical thesis of Soul, the latest Pixar film from director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and first-time Pixar collaborator Kemp Powers (who also wrote the terrific upcoming drama One Night in Miami). It is Pixar’s most imaginative and original venture in a long time, as well as its first with a Black protagonist and mostly Black characters, at least in its scenes set on earth. It bears some resemblance to other Pixar films — exploring meaning and purpose (Wall-E, Ratatouille) and the world beyond what our eyes can see (Coco, Inside Out) — while taking them in fresh, unexpected directions. And it’s a joy from start to finish.

(If that’s enough info for you, bail out now and go watch the movie. If you’re okay with some mild plot spoilers, come with me.)

But that barbershop scene serves as a distillation for the film because it’s not really Joe sitting in Dez’s chair. It’s 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul who has been accidentally dropped into Joe’s body. Joe, meanwhile, is dwelling in the body of the cat sitting at 22’s feet. And the reason 22 and Dez are only now talking about Dez’s life, even though Dez has been cutting Joe’s hair for years, is that Joe only ever wants to talk about jazz. 22, on the other hand, is truly new to the world — they’ve never lived on earth before. And they’re just discovering that life on earth, among people, is kind of cool and interesting, not the joyless slog they’d expected.

Okay, so how did they get in those bodies? Honestly, I want to leave you the fun of finding out for yourself. What I will say is that a portion of the movie takes place in an imagined version of — well, not the afterlife, but a kind of holding pen for new souls before they’re ready to go to earth. It’s called the YouSeminar, and all of the little souls, which bop around like adorable rubber droplets, spend their time there acquiring pieces of their personality so they can jump through a portal to earth and start living.

Two line-drawn figures stand at the crest of a chasm into the great beyond, fiddling with an abacus.
Soul’s visual imagination is breathaking.

The last little piece for all of the souls to acquire before they can head to earth is a “spark.” A soul can get this by working with a mentor, which is the soul of a dead person that’s volunteered to help out the new souls. (Think Mother Teresa, or Sir Isaac Newton.) The spark is the focus of Soul, and — importantly — how a spark differs from a “purpose,” which one of the big beings that shepherds the souls around derides as one of those words the mentors use that don’t really mean anything. A spark is not your purpose. It is, instead, the thing that makes you feel like you’re living.

That’s such a compelling and imaginative concept for an animated children’s film that I had to rewatch the movie to make sure I got it right. Like Inside Out, which delved into “negative” and “positive” emotions in a more nuanced way than I’d seen in a film before, Soul teases out some distinctions that seem to run almost counter to our everyday way of talking about life. We talk about some kids being obviously born to take up a certain profession; we ask high school and college students to take tests that determine their purpose or their “gift,” then cast those in terms of occupations. And if we had a dream of doing one job, but life or necessity led us in another direction, then we struggle with feeling like failures.

Surely some of the reason so many adults feel like they have to land their “dream job” or else they’ve failed in some way is as a result of movies — especially, I might add, the Disney variety — that relentlessly exhort children to pursue their dreams and not let anyone else tell them who they are. It’s not that the sentiment is wrong; it’s just that, according to Soul’s cosmology, it’s getting things a little backward. In this world, you don’t have a predetermined purpose, which is to say that there’s no slot on earth into which you, specifically, are meant to fall. Instead, there’s something about living that, in turn, sparks life in you. And it may or may not overlap with how you make a living, or where you live, or myriad other things about you.

A man sits on stage, playing a jazz piano.
Joe plays the piano in Soul.

Which means that your worth as a person isn’t tied to the job you have, either. For generations, we’ve caught on to the idea that our value to society is based on what occupation we’ll have, and we’ve devalued some (blue-collar work, like plumbing, bartending, and working a cash register) while elevating others (white-collar jobs, like investment banker, lawyer, or professor). We’re supposed to subscribe to the mantra of “do what you love.” And in a world where it’s harder and harder to make a living doing certain kinds of jobs, that’s especially dispiriting — a kind of utilitarianism that doesn’t capture the whole of a person. Soul tries to nudge the pendulum in the other direction, to say that a life lived in pursuit of the spark of joy, rather than some predetermined purpose, is the one to strive for.

The film dips into some other philosophical waters, too. There’s also a whole bit in the off-earth segments of the film about “the Zone” — that is, the place that athletes or artists or whatever go when they’re really into what they’re doing. There’s also an answer for what happens when people allow the thing that sparks them to become an obsession that takes them out of the act of truly living. (They become “lost souls,” blobby things with floppy arms that speed around a dark landscape unhappily, muttering things to themselves.) And we get to see what happens to souls after the humans who had them die — it’s quite spectacular.

But what’s most spectacular is the varied styles of animation, the way the different segments of the before- and afterlife are rendered. There’s line art that seems to bend around itself. There are starfields and dimension-bending images. The artists who made Soul went all out in depicting what it would be like to fall out of the normal rules of time and space and physics, and it’s simply wonderful, reminiscent in some ways of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow series.

A man on a street beneath an awning at a jazz club.
Joe on the street outside the “Half Note,” which is a recognizable twist on several famous jazz clubs in New York City.

And even in the sequences that take place on earth, there’s a specificity and texture to Soul that seems fresh in the Pixar universe. Ratatouille’s Paris is recognizably Paris, but it doesn’t make me long for Paris. The Dungeons and Dragons-like world of this year’s Onward is clever and amusing, but it feels a tad generic.

But Soul is set in New York City, in fall, and while some of my emotions about that probably have to do with a pandemic-induced feeling of missing New York even though I’m living in it, it’s also incredibly evocative. I know those streets, those specific corners. That barbershop is very recognizable, and so is the tailor, and the subway. And the rat dragging pizza along the ground. And the feeling of eating a slice of pizza, or walking along the sidewalk trying to keep the sauce on your gyro from dripping down your arm.

All of that specificity and wonder combines to make the feeling of the “spark,” and the film’s final thought — that whatever we’re doing with our lives, we ought to be living them — so vivid and enticing. Soul wasn’t made for a world that’s just gone through the nightmares of 2020, but coming out at the end of this harrowing year, it couldn’t feel more poignant. It’s funny, and it’s imaginative, but it’s also just very, very real.

Soul premieres on Disney+ on December 25.