Review: Soul — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Bill Newcott reviews Pixar's newest creation, the visually sumptuous, intellectually complex, endlessly entertaining Soul.

Scene from the DisneyPixar film Soul

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Soul

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

Rating: PG

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad

Writers: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers

Directors: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers

Streaming on Disney+

If you imagine the world of animation studios as a sixth-grade classroom, Disney is the little girl with her head on her desk, dreaming about princesses; Dreamworks is the spitballing, back-row class clown; Japan’s Studio Ghibli is the gamer nerd doodling elaborate creatures in a notebook—and Pixar is the class president, brainy but fun, popular but a tad aloof.

With its newest creation, the visually sumptuous, intellectually complex, endlessly entertaining Soul, it’s a fair bet that Pixar kid should be skipping grades all the way to high school.

Even when they’re playing to adult audiences, animated films tend to address childlike dilemmas: What will I do with my life? Why don’t I fit in with everyone else? Why won’t the world let me be me? What’s the true meaning of friendship…or love…or success? Pixar has seldom settled for such ground-floor questions, instead taking the express elevator to such lofty matters as the disappointments of getting old (Up), the perils of parenthood (Finding Nemo and The Incredibles), the fate of humanity (Wall-E) and, in the case of Soul, the question of whether the ultimate nature of our true self is determined by our personal passions or our conscious relationship to the world around us.

Huh? Relax. There’s also a wisecracking sidekick and a funny cat.

Joe (wonderfully voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle aged middle school music teacher who has never lost his burning ambition to be a full-time jazz pianist. But as life would have it, on the very day he finally gets his big break he falls down an open manhole and finds himself on a conveyor belt to Heaven. Or someplace like Heaven. Luckily for us, he doesn’t quite get to the Afterlife, as he bolts from the belt, plunges into a dark abyss, and lands in a cottony, colorful realm that is best described as the Beforelife, where souls dally before being born. Here, they attend seminars and visit elaborate museums as they sort out just what kind of people they are going to be.

In envisioning this place of infinite possibilities, the Pixar folks have let their imaginations run wild, creating a world that serves as a friendly, fluffy blue-and-white counterpoint to the kinda scary Day of the Dead-infused Underworld of the studio’s Coco. Millions of unborn souls, cooing and laughing, populate the landscape’s undulating horizons, overseen by towering-yet-friendly beings — all named Jerry — who usher those tiny charges through their pre-life rituals.

A mix-up puts Joe in charge of helping one particularly challenging soul find its way. Tina Fey, peppy and playfully annoying, gives voice to little 22 (pre-born souls are assigned numbers instead of names — at least something is left up to the parents). A mystical misfit, 22 is a soul who has been lingering for millennia, unable to pin down just what quality will define her worldly personality. She calls it her “spark,” and Joe immediately affirms that the focus of his personality, the reason he ever lived in the first place, was the “spark” of music.

From Toy Story through Finding Nemo and beyond, Pixar films have drawn their narrative energy from the reluctant buddy trope: A serious-minded protagonist is saddled with a clueless partner who, against all odds, opens our hero’s eyes to the things that are truly important in life. Soul treads that same narrative path, although in this case Joe and 22 learn from each other in equal measure. A near-disastrous return to Earth, a mix-up involving the wrong souls in the wrong bodies, and a touching sidebar involving Joe and his mother (warm-voiced Phylicia Rashad) all propel the pair’s voyage of cosmic discovery.

The title of Soul, of course, refers to both on the ethereal nature of the main characters and Joe’s beloved music. The film’s score hums with jazz written and performed by Jonathan Batiste, a frequent collaborator of Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson. Indeed, the film’s most transcendent moments may well be those set not in the supernatural realm, but in a dark, crowded Manhattan jazz club.

Most satisfying is Soul’s wrap-up. In most animated movies, this is the point where the characters traditionally learn that the key to personal fulfillment is in simply being true to yourself. Not so fast, both the terrestrial and heavenly worlds inform Joe and 22: The essence of You comes not only from within, but is suffused in your response to every beam of sunlight and each falling leaf.

There’s a lot more to you than you might think — that’s the heart and soul of Soul.

Featured image: DisneyPixar

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