Pixar’s second nominee, Soul, delivers on its name with a heartfelt journey that finds its purpose perfectly.
Following up the disappointment that was Pixar’s first nominee, Onward, I decided to head back to Disney+ and fire up Soul. The story of a man sent to the afterlife before what he thinks is his time tackles big issues with heart and humor. It may seem like a lot to grapple with, and perhaps a tough sell for families with young kids. Ultimately, the care and thought put into the film makes it a fantastic film for adults, and equally effective for starting conversations with younger viewers.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions for himself.
While a film about a middle age man falling down a manhole and dying may not sound like children’s fare, it’s actually surprisingly common. You have kids movies like Ghost Dad and All Dog’s Go to Heaven (though that one is…a bit problematic…), and PG rated films like Heaven Can Wait, Always, and the perennial classic It’s a Wonderful Life. So, while you may need to guide a kid through this film, it’s certainly not outside the mainstream.
What the film does to facilitate this discussion is pack the film itself with guideposts. Gardner is a middle school teacher, so there’s a buy-in there. Just as he guides a student who is afraid to admit she loves music, he guides 22, a soul afraid to admit she might love living. Gardner also learns in turn, first from the whimsical caretakers of The Great Before, and from his human friends and family back on Earth. It doesn’t hurt that he does most of this learning while appearing as a marshmallow shaped ghost or a pudgy cat.
The Hall of Everything.
Director and screenwriter Pete Docter really puts his, ahem, soul into the film. There’s so much here, layered carefully so that everyone has something they can hold on to. The visuals are warm, vibrant, and technically impressive: the sequences in the afterlife are pure imagination fueled by awesome designs. As noted, you have a lot of cute and whimsical materials to welcome in a young audience. For the older set, Joe’s life and troubles resonate and aren’t afraid to be properly adult in perspective – the meaning of life, the difficulties of finding a career versus a calling, expectations versus reality, and seeing people behind their appearances are not glossed over or candy coated. Appropriately for a film about getting back to your body, it’s earthy in places, celebrating stinky armpits and holes in your pants as well as finding a good slice of New York pizza.
Playing the Notes You Don’t See.
The film also does a fantastic job of communicating personal passion in general and love of jazz in particular. Jon Batiste’s jazz orchestrations are beautifully powerful and haunting by turns. I would not have figured Trent Reznor to score a Disney film, but he and Atticus Ross back up the jazz ensemble with ethereal music that perfectly suits the mood of the film.
On a nuts and bolts level, Soul communicates musical appreciation deftly. It even manages to sneak in music where you aren’t looking for it: as Joe races to get to his first big break, the camera shifts overhead and you see people lined up on the sidewalk like notes on a sheet of music, with Joe flowing around the played notes like a jazz soloist buzzing around the notes on the sheet.
Quite the Ensemble.
Soul is tremendous animated film, just packed to bursting everywhere. The voice cast is wonderful, anchored by Jamie Foxx keeping things grounded while Tina Fey delightfully plays the mischievous 22 to the hilt. The visuals really impress; I may have given Onward a spot on Pixar’s most visually engaging movies list that really belongs to Soul. Soul can be cute and whimsical like Onward, but it also can be abstract, realistic, or restrained as called for by the scene, all to great effect.
Finally, unlike Onward, Soul just has layers and layers that reward the viewer, no matter what age. Pete Docter and crew have really delivered a multifaceted gem of a film. Pixar may bank on lighter fare like Toy Story and Cars for popular appeal, but films like Up and Soul show that it they have depth and complexity in abundance as well.