Every work of narrative fiction necessarily implies death. Most authors (not named William Shakespeare) merely spare us the grim reality that every character we meet will at some point perish. Even the rosiest of a storybook ending, …and they lived happily ever after, really only means the span of time until she steps on a snake or he fails to notice that blocked chimney flue.

Pixar has been at the forefront of dramatizing, and humanizing, this existential truth. Finding Nemo kicks off with an aquatic massacre, and explores its traumatic aftermath. Up opens with an unforgettable, and thoroughly heartbreaking, visual poem of mortality. Toy Story 3 climaxes with a Kübler-Ross-style acceptance of finality. Coco sends a living boy into (and out of) a bustling afterlife. Barely ten minutes into Soul, Pixar’s latest, our protagonist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) meets his unceremonious end down a Manhattan manhole. A regular Joe’s death is the film’s inciting event. The meaning of life is its central concern.

Directed by Pete Docter along with co-director Kemp Powers, Pixar’s remarkable 23rd feature is an obvious spiritual successor to Inside Out (also directed by Docter). But while that film imagined a dazzling visual framework for human psychology, this emotionally generous, and tremendously ambitious, film zooms far from reality and interrogates the fundamental philosophical queries originally raised by Plato and Aristotle.

When we first meet him, Joe’s a frustrated middle-school band director who, despite his apparent middle age, still dreams of being a professional musician. A former student gets him an audition as a pianist for a prestigious jazz combo, which he nails. Bandleader Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), thoroughly wowed, invites him to play a gig later that evening. “We’ll see how you do,” she says with a smirk as Joe races out to meet his demise.

What unfolds during the next 90 minutes is equal parts “The Good Place” and Freaky Friday, Cyrano de Bergerac and The Tree of Life. Joe discovers that life on Earth is simply a middle-destination for our souls (here visualized as noseless marshmallow puffs). Sure, there’s the place you go to after death, but there’s also the Great Before, where new souls are given personality traits and, above all, the “spark” of passion before entering this mortal coil.

Joe manages to circumvent the natural order by avoiding death and landing himself back in the Great Before (which has been cheekily rebranded the “You Seminar”). There he meets the Zen-like Counselors, shepherds of new souls through pre-life, all of whom are rendered as cubist drawings named Jerry. He also encounters an obstinate new soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who refuses to take a crack at life after hanging around the Great Before for at least a few millennia. (Archimedes, Copernicus, Mother Teresa and Muhamad Ali – among many illustrious others – have all failed to convince 22 to take a chance at birth.)

Both Joe and 22 wind up on Earth, but with a major complication. Suddenly a grown man is traversing a fully realized New York City in a panic – with a tabby cat in tow (hello, Inside Llewyn Davis) – as the clock ticks down to his potential big break. This portion of Soul comes closest to the hijinks associated with a wild romp geared toward children. Most of what transpires, however, investigates the anxieties of adulthood. Finding peace in death is one thing. Discovering joy in a life that falls short of your dreams is another.

We’ve become so accustomed to, and desensitized by, Pixar’s consistent greatness. If another studio had produced such a loving, kind, and profound work of humanity, it’d be hailed as an instant masterpiece. Which this is. Soul marvelously grapples with the big questions, from infinity to the great beyond.

Summary
Though we may have become desensitized to Pixar’s greatness, Soul is an instant masterpiece, and a loving, kind, and profound work of humanity.
93 %
Another Pixar masterpiece
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