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There are technically no rules against an animated film winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. In the 93-year history of the Oscars, however, only three have ever received a nomination (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3”), and none have ever won. When “Wall-E” wasn’t nominated in 2008, critics began to raise questions about whether the existence of the separate “Best Animated Feature” category was inherently harmful — an implicitly degrading statement that animated films must be judged by different standards than live-action ones.
This, in some ways, is besides the point; to delve into a discussion of the Academy’s inner machinations would probably make this review about 20 times longer. But the “Best Animated Feature” category is, in many ways, symptomatic of the way many Americans view animation: as a genre, rather than as a medium. The way we associate animation with fart jokes and cheesy endings makes it difficult to think broader, to produce something mature and thoughtful like “Spirited Away” or “Your Name” — leaving us to define animated movies as “just for kids”
Pixar’s “Soul,” however, blows this definition out of the water.
The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who’s always dreamed of being a professional jazz pianist. On the day he finally gets his big break — literally moments after being offered the chance to play with one of the jazz greats — he falls into an open manhole and, well, dies.
What follows is a bit less realistic. Instead of proceeding to The Great Beyond like all the other souls, Joe (now an ethereal, glowing, light teal-colored soul) flees to The Great Before — the fantastical celestial plane where new souls get their personalities before proceeding to Earth. There, he meets 22 (Tina Fey), a petulant, jaded new soul who’s not all that jazzed about going to Earth, and together, they devise a plan to return Joe to his earthly body in time for his big gig.
Much like in “Inside Out” (another brainchild of director and Pixar Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter), the far-fetched premise of “Soul” is balanced by how grounded it is in the human condition. It’s okay, for instance, that Joe’s soul inhabits a therapy cat named Mr. Mittens for a good chunk of the second act, because this ultimately allows 22 to recognize the true meaning of life on Earth. And the slapstick is kept to a minimum — replaced with humor that is either very clever or uncannily mature (“Can’t crush a soul here,” 22 says as a building collapses onto a group of new souls in The Great Before. “That’s what life on Earth is for”).
The astral landscapes of The Great Before are just as lush, beautiful, and imaginative as Riley’s mind in “Inside Out.” Purple “trees” are scattered on hills of turquoise “grass” in this land of blue-green pastels and incoherent, fuzzy forms — making for a world that is dream-like in the most literal sense of the word. Particularly striking are the Counselors: the kind, gentle giants that guide new souls through The Great Before. The way they are animated to look both two-dimensional and three-dimensional (sort of like a Picasso portrait brought to life) is visually stunning: a refreshing take on CG animation from the studio that pioneered the craft.
The other half of the film is set in New York, a city that Pixar managed to make just as visually interesting as a literal astral plane. Docter achieves a frenetic, energized depiction of the city that never sleeps and the diverse people it comprises, and everything about the film — from the cinematography to the crowds animation — imbibes Joe’s New York with gritty authenticity. The contrast in scoring, too — between composer Jon Batiste’s jazzy, piano-heavy New York and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ (the duo behind “Mank” and “The Social Network”) ethereal, airy underscore to The Great Before — does more than its fair share of narrative and emotional heavy lifting.
And as beautiful as the animation and music are, the real soul (pun intended) of the film lies in its writing. It does, for the most part, follow the typical Pixar story beats, but the way it builds to its final point is masterful: scattering seemingly insignificant plot points throughout the second act, shepherding an ostensibly well-adjusted protagonist through a series of adventures, and having him discover the flaw in his thinking just as the audience does — a puzzle that the viewer assembles right alongside Joe.
The final act is a masterclass in storytelling: in particular, a four-minute sequence near the end manages to — wordlessly, sublimely, poignantly — capture the beauty of the human condition. It is an ending that feels earned, one that will not only leave the viewer (as most good films do) reflecting on their own life, but also (as not many animated films do) wondering if their child can fully grasp its meaning.
“Soul” offers a thesis on the meaning of human life — a difficult question to answer in a 200-page philosophy dissertation, much less a 104-minute animated film. And it does so with all the beauty, detail, and imagination that audiences have come to expect from Pixar. It is a good animated film (indeed, probably an Oscar-worthy one), but more importantly, it is a good film, period. And it is films like “Soul” that prove that animation isn’t just as good as live-action, but — quite often — better.
Pixar's "Soul" is available to stream on Disney+ beginning on Dec. 25.
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