I see what people mean when they say that this movie is a return to form for Pixar. Pixar does it's best work when it takes abstract concepts and puts life and feelings into them to make them approachable from an everyman's perspective. Now and again you'll see someone repeating the old saw about how each of Pixar's films is just "What if X had feelings?" But I think Pixar takes it a step further that that: they also ask, "...and what does that mean for us, as living, feeling people?"
And this is Pixar at its best. From an aesthetic point of view, I'd say that this one's even better than Toy Story 4. I think that the 'souls' are really interesting to look at in the beginning--the weird focus, the shimmer, the gradient on them like in old film; but they sort of fade into the background after a little while, especially when 'shot' close up. The eyes are traditional plasticky-looking 3D animation, while the body itself is that lightly fuzzy texture we first say in Inside Out. Neither on its own looks bad, but when you put them next to each other it's a little... off. The real world, however, is something else to behold. Easily their most technically astonishing world. It doesn't look real--it looks the way that you wish that real looked.
I think using Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was also a terrific choice. I could listen to this movie, no visuals at all. The title cards are breathtaking. I don't throw around that word, either. Reznor and Ross are absolutely on form here. The juxtaposition of their unobtrusive ambient soundscapes with the more 'conventional' jazz music works a lot better than you think it would. Especially considering that this is a "children's" film (in the sense that Pixar's films are never just for children).
If I had to pick something I wasn't a huge fan of, maybe I'd say the structure was a little wonky. I liked that we had an opening scene, before our introduction to the soul-world; but once we were in soul-world it sort of felt like we were going to stay there for a while and explore--that these were our characters and we were going to stick with them. Which made it a little jarring when, a third of the way through the movie, we took a right turn back into the real world, and our characters started looking different. It wasn't disorienting per se--it just took a minute to get back into. And but after this the movie caught its stride, and everything fell back into place.
I'm also not sure that I'm coming away with it with that sense of awe, the wake that I've come away with after watching other movies--Pixar or otherwise. Some movies stick with you for a few days, you know? You go back and watch a couple of scenes again and notice things you'd missed. You want to talk about it with someone else. And I don't think I've got that. I don't think this is the film's fault: the message of the film (which only really emerges from about halfway through) is basically the same message as DFW's This is Water, which I've just about been indoctrinated with. So maybe I'm not the ideal audience. Not to say I'm not receptive.
But it makes ranking the film here a bit tough. I'm inclined to give it a 4/5 because I'm not coming away with that wake, like I said; but I'd also have given Toy Story 4 a 4/5, and Soul was better than Toy Story 4; for all that it was a technical achievement, it really was just a thorough nostalgia trip for folks in their late twenties. But this isn't a Toy Story 4 review. So I've pulled a Fantano. Strong 4.