Updated: Jul 13, 2021
The meaning of life is kind of a weird topic for an animated family movie. Equally weird is making its main character a middle-aged jazz musician. Through its storied existence, Pixar has made a habit of taking things that wouldn’t necessarily scream to be interesting ideas for movies (let alone for their target audience) and turning them into something special. It started with “what if toys secretly have the same fears/anxieties that we do?” From there they’ve looked at things from the perspective of bugs, monsters, fish, even emotions, making all of them relatable.
Their latest, Soul (streaming on Disney+), about a jazz musician trying to literally get his life back, uses some of the themes Pixar has dealt with before, but plays them using different notes; creating something that feels new. It is passionate, intelligent and witty, as well as lively and entertaining. Their first release this year, Onward, was a really fun adventure. This is that and so much more.
Joe Gardner lives to be up on-stage playing jazz. However, unable to land a steady gig doing what he loves, he spends his days as a music teacher. As soon as he gets the opportunity of his dreams, he finds himself facing the afterlife. Steered toward the Great Beyond just as what he has always wanted finally seems to be in his grasp, he flees, beginning a desperate journey back to his body.
Pixar has been so successful because, in addition to coming up with good stories and beautiful animation, they actually try to explore their characters, making them more than merely pieces of a plot. Here, they create two distinct characters and use them to ask questions about life, passion and purpose.
The first is Joe. He is a man who has lived long enough that he thinks he understands exactly what his life has been about and what it has been leading to. The second is 22. She is a soul he meets in the Before Life, a place for souls being prepared to begin life. These are two beings at complete opposite ends of the spectrum: Joe is technically dead, but will do anything to continue his life; 22 has yet to live and looks at everything with eyes stuffed to the brim with cynicism. The arc seems kind of obvious, but life rarely goes the way you imagine it will. Though Soul takes them to most of the expected places, it does so in unexpected ways. It reveals depths in both of them, awakened by what truly experiencing life could mean to them on a very personal level. I’m used to Pixar finding interesting ways to approach heavy material; still, I was surprised at how moving, and inspiring, this became.
They are not forced into a plot. Instead, the plot comes from who this person and pre-person think they are and what they think life can be. Soul proves it gets people like Joe right in the opening scene. As we watch him watch a student lose herself in the pleasure of playing music, we can see his joy. That joy does not only come from his own enjoyment of hearing the music; even more so, it comes from the enjoyment of seeing his student experience what he feels when he plays piano. Everything else melts away and only the music exists. That immediately told me that this isn’t just another story about an artist; it was made by people who know that feeling. It is more concerned with Joe trying to help 22 discover it, while learning where it comes from in his own soul.
The animation is typically lovely. The prologue showing the school, the busy streets of New York City and the darkly lit jazz club, is effective at giving Joe a realistic starting point. That is contrasted big time with the Before Life, which is full of incredible sights. The souls are sort of greenish, floating, glowing blobs. The creatures in charge (called “Jerry”) are elongated outlines who can move anywhere. It is bright and fun to look at. It is also fun to listen to, with great voice work from Jamie Foxx (as Joe) and Tina Fey (as 22) and a really good score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who had another good score a few weeks ago with Mank).
While it would’ve been ideal to see Soul in theaters, where its visuals and sound would’ve stood out even more, I’m happy to have been able to see it at all. It’s almost easy to take it for granted, but Pixar does what they always do: tackle complex subject matter in a family movie in a way that is smart, funny, thoughtful and touching.
4¾ out of 5
Jamie Foxx as Joe
Tina Fey as 22
Graham Norton as Moonwind
Rachel House as Terry
Questlove as Curley
Angela Bassett as Dorothea
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers