2020 has been a complete disaster for movies, on top of all the other things it has been a disaster for, but it managed to scrounge up a miracle in its last days: Pixar Animation Studios is alive and well. It was far too easy to wonder if the studio, a full decade after its run as the most reliable film production company in the English-speaking world ended, had slid irrevocably into bland mediocrity after Onward, released in the longago mists of March, as the last major movie to get a proper release before the world collapsed. Onward has its charms - I'm blanking on them at the moment, but surely I had some reason for giving it a three-star review at the time - but it certainly isn't the kind of project that gets produced by a company that's trying to demonstrate its artistry or creativity, with its fill-in-the-blanks scenario and generic emotions. Thank God for Soul, then, which I am not prepared to say finds the studio firing on all cylinders, but certainly isn't filling in any blanks or feeling anything generic. It's a strange, elaborate sprawl of fantasy and philosophy, baked into a film that has decided that one of its main goals will be to each children the joy of jazz music, and which uses a silly body swap comedy as the mechanism by which it explores insoluble questions about personality. It feels more like a concept that could have come out during Pixar's miracle decade of the  2000s than any other film they've done since then, and it's a lovely reminder of just how splendid and precious that decade was.

The film is director Pete Docter's first project since 2015's Inside Out (the other Pixar film from this decade that feels like it could have been made by the studio during its glory days*), and his first since taking the reins as Pixar's chief creative officer. Like Inside Out, it's an attempt to create a fun adventure-comedy out of psychological abstractions: in this case, the persistence of identity and personality after death. For that is where we start, basically with the death of our protagonist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), on the very same day that he's received a big breakthrough in his dream career as a jazz pianist. Realising before it's too late that he's being shipped to whatever place souls go to after death - the film won't speculate where that might be or what its nature is  - he manages to escape to it polar opposite, the place where souls hang out before birth. Here, he's mistaken for a mentor, a deceased soul that gets paired with a preborn soul to help the latter find the spark that will drive them in life; specifically, he gets hooked up with Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a petulant sort who has heretofore resisted all mentorship, out of a steadfast conviction that life on Earth is obviously going to suck. Joe figures out how to manipulate 22 into helping him get back into his body, but things go wrong - he ends up in a cat, and the baby soul ends up inside of him,  where she promptly gets overwhelmed by physical stimuli.

It's all very cute and playful, and while it ultimately gets quite wistful and sentimental, I can't say that this follows the usual Pixar formula of letting us get to a point about four-fifths from the ending, cracking its knuckles and saying, "alright, so you need to start crying now", and lo! we are crying. Like, I can see the exact moments where there could be crying, but that doesn't seem to be what Docter and co-director Kemp Powers are hoping for; not that they'd mind if we do cry, but the moment lacks the sublime manipulation of Pixar at its most naked emotional. This is no doubt because Soul is rather surprisingly light and simple, despite having literal life-and-death stakes. Not one of the studio's films has been this peaceful and content to just linger in moments; even the inevitable third act action sequence in this case is over and done with so quickly, and centered so directly on the characters' feelings, that it hardly even registers as a setpiece. This is directly tied to the film's explicit themes, which include the observation that part of the great privilege of being alive is having the opportunity to appreciate moments of beauty and happiness when they arrive (also, one of Soul's more aggravating shortcomings: its themes are very explicit, and there are a lot of them. I get that children's media can't dither around being impenetrably subtle, but parts of this just feel didactic).

Whatever the motivation, this relative lack of conflict or dramatic urgency certainly makes Soul stand out, among Pixar's films and among American animated features generally; it is not a medium that favors the delicate, gentle storytelling we get here. In this sense, Soul is maybe the Pete Docter-est of Pete Docter films; all of his features (also including 2001's Monsters, Inc. and 2009's Up) are distinguished from the rest of Pixar's output by the earnest simplicity and directness of their emotion, and increasingly, by how little traditional hero vs. villain conflicts matter to them. Everybody at Pixar openly loves Miyazaki, but Docter, I think, is maybe the only one who makes films that actually feel like Miyazaki's work in that sense, that generosity and kindliness, and curiosity about how things work or might work completely triumphing over tension or fear.

All of which is to say: Soul is unbelievably nice and sweet, to such a degree that it begins to lose some definition. I do not, to be clear, think that the film would benefit from having a violent showdown with a bad guy. It might, however, benefit from being slightly more concerned about keeping things tightly bound and moving forward. It's a shaggy movie, loose and meandering, and as a large chunk of this meandering involves putting Joe-inside-a-cat and 22-inside-Joe on the streets of New York  and simply allowing them to interact with the city as they will, the middle of the film sags, rather badly.

Still, a certain slackness between friends isn't so bad. And besides, when a world is as sumptuous a visual feast as Soul has to offer, you can hardly be blamed for wanting to take it in slowly. This is quite a stylish film, and quite proud to show the style off, too: the living world of New York and the astral plane of the souls are contrast in every visual and sonic way two spaces in a movie can be. New York is the most photorealistic environment Pixar has ever created, give or take the gorgeous landscapes of The Good Dinosaur, and there is a qualitative difference between making rocks and trees look painterly, as that film does, and making New York look like a slightly romanticised but still physically tangible New York, as Soul does. It's definitely not "real", in that the luscious autumn-gold lighting makes the city glow with warm beauty that the real New York is almost certainly incapable of possessing, but it feels solid and present, and in this it is wildly unlike the pastel haze of the after/beforelife, which is all soft edges and cartoon smudginess. This is followed through in the soundtrack: rumbling street noises and a vigorous jazz score by Jon Batiste in the living world, muted ambients and cozy, uplifting droning music by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross in the other place. It's in the virtual camera movement, which has a shuddering faux-handheld style in  New York, the weightless gliding of digital animation in the afterlife.

It's extremely present in the character design, which is so extraordinary I've given it a paragraph all to itself. There are no photorealistic humans in Soul, to be sure: the people who inhabit New York are all caricatures, Joe especially, with his appealing pear-shaped body and mushy face with its big, readable expressions. And they move with the slightly-over-articulated limbs of CG  animation, which I suspect is deliberately reduced in quality to keep us securely on the far side of the Uncanny Valley (the scenes with Joe's mother, voiced winningly by Phylicia Rashad, are the clearest place to see this: her spindly arms jerk into position rather than smoothly glide there, and she holds her poses too stiffly). Maybe not, who knows. At any rate, the caricatures are still human caricatures, like line drawings given three-dimensionality and the texturing is still looking towards realism, in the stretchiness of human skin and the fuzziness of clothing. The souls, meanwhile, are little glowing teardrop-shaped beings with big goofy cartoon versions of the caricatures, all round and plush, with a soft, pleasant blue color (with flickers of green and red on the edges). And the very nice, very addled bureaucrats who run the place, well they're just the most astonishing characters ever animated at Pixar. Even after having pondered it, and I'm not really sure how they have been carried off, but the effect, anyway, is of abstract, but recognisably human, modernist line drawings, all straight edges and sharp corners. They look two-dimensional as designs, and they continue to look two-dimensional in every frame, taken in isolation; but they're also three-dimensional models, moving three-dimensionally through space, while preserving their 2-D look. If Soul had literally nothing else to offer, it would still be worth watching the movie just to see these amazing figures, whose indescribable otherworldliness is a stylistic match for their fundamental, unknowable inhumanity in the script. And not for nothing, but they all generally get the best jokes, and have the most fun vocal performances thanks to a remarkable list of actors playing them: Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Rachel House, Wes Studi.

Anyway, Soul does have quite a bit else to offer, in its bright, silly jokes (there's a running gag of one-off cameos of famous dead people from history), in its striking mashup of hippie spirituality and pop-psychology inquiry, in its gorgeous music and the lightly abstract way it visualises the pleasure of playing and listenign, in its amazing array of creative animated imagery, which suffers only from the best of it being frontloaded (the single best visual concept in the whole film, even more than the 2-D/3-D figures, is the way that space seems to "bend" into creating the Great Beyond, and the way a black staircase emerges from a black background, and this has already been used up before we even get to the film's title). I think there's a little too much to nitpick, and too little momentum to get us through all 100 of the film's minutes without straining, to call this top-tier Pixar, but the fact that this was even sniffing at the top tier is fantastic, given the state of the studio's output these last few years.




*Just to be clear, I'm talking about tone and conceptual audacity here as much as quality. Quality-wise, I think there's a legitimate argument that Incredibles 2 is Pixar's best film of the last ten years, but obviously there's nothing weird about 2010s-edition Pixar making a sequel.