Moviegoer: Soul

Pixar continues its quest to animate the meaning of life in this beautiful film 

By Diana Beechener 

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx: Project Power) is always one step short of his dreams. He’s chased jazz stardom since he was 12 years old, but life kept getting in the way. Now he’s middle-aged and teaching band in a public school. It feels like a failure to Joe, who always wanted more. He’s a good teacher, inspiring his kids and encouraging the ones who truly love music, but Joe always thought he was destined for more.  

Joe finally gets his big break when he gets the chance to play piano for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett: 9-1-1). He impresses Dorothea and suddenly it looks like Joe will finally be the acclaimed pianist he always knew he should be.  

Then he falls into a manhole. 

Joe finds himself floating toward the Great Beyond, on a people mover ramp. He watches others get zapped into the afterlife, but Joe isn’t ready to go. He runs down the ramp, falling and finding himself in an odd cloudy haven called The Great Before.  

The Great Before is where souls go before they get to visit Earth. Supreme beings called Counselors, that look like living Picasso paintings, guide new souls into different activities that give them personalities. Some souls are assigned to be aloof, others are assigned to be sensitive, others (worryingly) are sent to the megalomaniac building. But not everything about a soul’s personality is determined by the Counselors; souls are paired with mentors who help them find their spark (that one thing that makes them excited). Once the souls find their spark, they’re issued an Earth pass and sent to the planet to experience life.  

Determined to get back to Earth at any cost, Joe poses as a mentor, hoping to swipe an Earth pass and get back to the world in time for his big performance. Unfortunately for him, he’s paired with Soul 22 (Tina Fey: Modern Love), a soul who doesn’t want to live on Earth and is quite content with the Great Before. Soul 22 has broken a whole host of mentors: Mother Teresa called 22 a jerk, Albert Einstein cried.  

Can Joe convince Soul 22 that the world is worth experiencing? Or will he be too busy chasing his dreams to help?  

Pensive, beautiful, and ultimately uplifting, Soul is the latest masterwork from Pixar director Pete Docter (Inside Out) that looks at what makes us who we are. Be aware, this movie is not made, nor meant for young viewers. Think of this as Inside Out’s older sibling who’s got student loans and a job they don’t want. This is very much a movie about coming to terms with who you are and being ok with what your life looks like. It’s a stirring, moving film, but one that’s going to leave younger viewers either confused or bored to tears.  

Docter is interested in what it means to have a spark in your life. Citing all the horrors of the world, 22 does not want to go to Earth. After 2020, it’s hard not to agree with her. But Docter does something clever here—when 22 gets to experience life, she realizes it’s pretty great. The bad things are still there, but so are the millions of wonderful things no one ever thinks about: making a person smile, the smell of pizza, the beauty of leaves cascading on the wind. The world is more than good or bad, it’s truly a wonder and one that must be experienced.  

There’s also a very interesting idea in Soul. Docter poses that what makes us great isn’t necessarily achieving our dreams. It’s certainly a radical idea for an animated film. The idea that achieving the goal you had as a child doesn’t define you or give you worth is surprisingly poignant for a film that features cat shenanigans.  

This is also the first Pixar film with a predominantly Black cast. The film takes care, consulting with cinematographer Bradford Young so that animators could properly capture the full range and beauty of darker skin in all sorts of light. The painstaking research is apparent and Soul feels like a long-overdue celebration.  

Giving Joe his soul is Foxx, who imbues the character with a dogged passion for his music. Joe is so focused on his goal that he can be selfish and disinterested in others. But when 22 forces him to look at the world around him, Joe is struck by the same wonder as his mentee.  

If you’re a fan of Pixar’s more mature works like Coco or UpSoul should be a delight. If you’re looking for fun fare that will keep your kids happy, you may want to put on Toy Story or Monster’s Inc. instead.  

Soul is available starting Dec. 25 on Disney+. 

Great Animation * PG * 100 mins.