Roman Arbisi’s review published on Letterboxd:
Throughout Pixar’s history, their mass appeal, and a roster of characters that have connected with many people far and wide, they have maintained a resounding sense of consistency. When taking into consideration how emotionally rich so many of their films have been, it’s hard to find another slate of films that have excelled at their job time after time. With their 23rd feature, Soul, longtime Pixar talent, Pete Docter may have uncovered the fabric of their DNA as a studio, as well as elevating this picture to be their crowning achievement because of how it observes the subjects of life, death, and passion.
With voice talents led by Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx, Soul is another Pixar film with a likable duo leading the story. In typical Pixar fashion, this movie is structured almost beat for beat like many of their previous features. Two characters on an epic journey, they discover themselves through their connection with each other, they soon grow tired of one another, only to eventually reconnect on a positive note. This, by all means, is a huge reason why I was critical of Pixar’s previous 2020 release, Onward. The difference in why I loved this film, and only slightly enjoyed the former, is because of Soul’s presentation and execution. These movies desperately need to revitalize their structure, but when it’s executed well, it doesn’t matter. Most notably because they manage to create vivid, rich, sights and sounds that most Western animated films wish they could accomplish.
Just a few years removed from the magic of Into The Spiderverse, and Soul is another film that pushes the boundaries of animation. Not only in how they get in deep with the emotional layers of the film, but how they visualize it. There are numerous sequences where it sparks the imagination of the viewer, allowing them to ponder how they would be reflected in the film’s afterlife. It’s something that allows the viewer to be engaged within the world of the film, and with that comes the opportunity for the world to contextualize itself on a broad level. It takes these moments and allows us to empathize outside of the immediate framing, and apply that to our own experiences. Making that relationship with the screen and the viewer merge into one beating heart. There are many ways in which movies are able to accomplish this, but Soul cheats a bit and directly taps into the very fabric of our existence.
As existential as that is, Soul never bites off more than it can chew. It meticulously places these emotional nuggets that foreshadow bigger ideas. Allowing those initial seeds to grow into something much bigger and broader than we initially perceive. It takes that very small, human scale, and builds it into this personal and emotional skyscraper that tackles how we exist under the umbrella of the universe. This is a concept for a question that is fundamentally impossible to truly answer. Instead of applying the right answers with objectivity, Soul instead applies a few ideas worth pondering and pursuing to give ourselves more comfort with the fact that we are all living through our own experiences. It is something astoundingly mature, and deeply empathetic in ways many movies aren’t. This is perhaps a product of Pete Docter’s growth as a storyteller, but it’s another notch in his belt as he showcases what the medium can accomplish.
When it’s all said and done, as we sit at home on our couches and recollect on our time here on Earth, whether that be extensive, or brief by comparison, we see how movies really are an extension of our humanity. They exist on an entirely different plane than we do, but the journeys we see, how we relate to that, and why it impacts us on a personal level are experiences and questions worth asking. It allows us to find worth in lives that aren’t a direct reflection of our own, and opens the door to asking questions about ourselves. In many ways, Soul represents everything I love about this medium and what it can accomplish when everyone involved is as deeply passionate about the medium as I am.
For as great of a history that Pixar has had, arguably the greatest body of work in film history, and iconic films that register as historic milestones, Soul may very well be their crowning achievement. It’s a movie that asks incredibly big questions and delivers profound answers for the characters, that allow us to expand on them in our own personal ways afterwards. It recognizes that life isn’t about reaching one moment, it is rather a collection of smaller, more meaningful moments that build towards the final destination. Like film-making, it’s always been about the journey, not the arrival. Pete Docter recognizes that film is nothing without soul, and that soul is derived from our journeys here on Earth and how we choose to act with the time that is given. The fact that this movie is a part of the same catalogue as Cars, Ratatouille, Toy Story, and The Incredibles is a testament to Pixar’s growth as a studio and Pete Docter’s ability as a storyteller. Soul is destined to be a hallmark of animated storytelling in the years to come. A film we’ll look back on that allowed us to come to terms with why we live, as it gives meaning to death, whenever that may come.