Soul is the most out-there Pixar movie ever made. Pixar animation director Pete Docter is known for uniquely emotional movies like Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out. So I knew his next project was gonna be equally emotional in a very unique way. Soul asks the question, how does a soul gain its humanity? I was puzzled the moment I read about the concept. Since Docter was going for a very philosophical story that required a lot more creativity. Everyone has a soul, but interpretations vary depending on who you ask. Soul is a lot like Inside Out and Coco. Inside Out for visualizing an abstract human concept and Coco for dealing with the afterlife, music, and a specific ethnicity.
Soul is the first Pixar movie with a black lead, but we’ll never know if that would’ve made it a financial hit. Thanks to the pandemic, Soul is the only Pixar film not given a theatrical release. Something that still enrages me since high caliber Pixar animation is made for the big screen. Instead I had to contend with seeing it on Disney+ Christmas day. Unlike Onward, which was fortunately released early in 2020. I’m not sure I’m ready to call Soul an instant masterpiece, but I am happy I finally got to see it. Maybe I just needed a theater going experience to fully take in the all too relatable life-affirming message…
Joe introduces 22 to pizza
Soul was meant to release alongside the traditionally animated short Burrow. A cute little story about a stubborn rabbit burrowing to make his own home. Soul has more than one meaning. Although Pixar considered a variety of professions to follow, they ultimately decided on a soulful jazz player. Which also meant focusing on black culture. Pixar went the extra mile by hiring African American consultants including first time co-director Kemp Powers. In order to accurately portray the diverse look of multiple different black characters in New York City. Something you’re only ever likely to see in a predominantly black movie or show. Hair, body types, and skin tone are all distinctly black. With several other ethnicities present as well.
Along with a respectable mostly black cast consisting of Jamie Foxx, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, and Angela Bassett. John Ratzenberger is apparently present, but I couldn’t hear his voice anywhere. The computer animation is stunning even on the small screen, but the stylized head shapes and lanky bodies are still a little weird to me. Joe Gardner is a part time middle school music teacher who’s very passionate about jazz. He zones out while playing the piano and always encourages his students whether they’re good or bad. It’s just not his dream job. Joe really wants to play in a jazz band despite his seamstress mother’s objections. Their strained relationship is partially related to how his deceased father felt about jazz. One of his former students Curly gives him the big break he needs. Getting him a once in a lifetime audition with jazz legend Dorothea Williams. The audition goes well, but Joe’s life is abruptly cut short when he falls to his death in an open manhole cover.
This is when the second meaning of Soul officially kicks in. I’ve never been a big fan of jazz music, but the human soul is a different story. As a Christian, I know a soul makes us who we are and ascends to Heaven (or descends to Hell) when we die. Casual uses of Hell are mainly to thank for the PG rating. I just got a bit nervous when I read about Docter seeking out various religious representatives for their interpretation of the afterlife. You can’t please everyone, so Soul feels more fantasy than factual and even a little random in its portrayal. Unlike Coco, which was distinctly hispanic with its Day of the Dead interpretation. Souls are visually represented by small blue forms with the features of whomever past away. Along with a complete lack of feeling. Unlike Inside Out, visualizing souls without a defined appearance in a kid friendly way was probably trickier. Joe ascends a staircase into the light known as the “Great Beyond.”
Since he’s not ready to die, Joe finds himself in a dark in between area visualized by a variety of 2D animation styles. Enter the “Great Before.” An abstract concept where formless numbered baby souls get their quirks, passions, and identity before falling to Earth. They’re lead by several soul counselors named Jerry (all with distinct accents) that are visualized by undefined abstract human-like shapes. This is what I mean when I say it felt random at times. Inside Out had a far easier time portraying emotion in the human mind. The closest thing to a villain is soul counter Terry. Since Joe is meant to pass on, he must find a way to get back to Earth before he’s discovered. He forms an unlikely Pixar duo with 22. An old soul voiced by Tina Fey who never wants to live on Earth or discover what her purpose is.
Young souls are paired up with an experienced soulmate mentor from Earth that helps them find out what they’re good at. One of the funniest gags is 22 failing to receive help from the likes of Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali, and even Abraham Lincoln. Not sure I fully understand, but the “Hall of You” and everything room to find one’s spark (complete with Pizza Planet truck) are interesting concepts. Joe & 22 don’t see eye to eye on life, but he tries his best to explain the joys of living. There’s only so much you can do with a soul, but they utilize various soul related concepts. Lost souls are represented by empty monsters that wander the world without passion for what they do. “The Zone” is where souls end up when what they do really clicks with them. The most cosmically nonsensical aspect is what happens to people who enter spiritual nirvana. They pass into the soul world on a boat in order to help lost souls. Moonwind is Joe’s best hope of returning to his body since 22 can’t get her pass to Earth.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! What follows is the most unexpected part of the movie. Moonwind opens a portal to Joe’s body in the hospital, but 22 ends up falling in as well. Soul surprisingly turns into a body swap comedy when 22 enters Joe’s body and Joe enters the body of the hospitals therapy cat. I guess the random unexplained cat seen on the poster has a purpose after all. Characters hear Joe’s voice and a cat meowing, while the audience gets to hear Tina Fey’s voice come out of Joe’s body and Jamie Foxx voicing a cat. It’s a really bizarre direction to take, but I didn’t really expect the whole movie to take place in the “Great Before.” Especially since too much unseen footage takes place in New York without context. The purpose of the body swap was for 22 to experience the joys of living and for Joe to realize his life only ever revolved around his dream. 22 learns to love pizza, appreciate music, communicate with others, and find a reason to live.
From a cat’s perspective, Joe witnesses his student regain her passion for playing the trumpet, overhears how his barber feels about his profession, and tells 22 to tell his mother how he really feels about jazz. They try to swap bodies with sign twirler Moonwind’s help, but 22’s lust for life gets them caught by Terry. 22 gets her pass to Earth only to throw it in Joe’s face. He returns to his body, but his successful jazz band performance isn’t as glamorous as he thought it would be. I guess Joe’s soul searching moment of realization at how great the little moments in life were, is supposed to be the big tear worthy moment. I just wasn’t sure when the best moment to cry in Soul was. Surprisingly, Onward made me more emotional than a movie literally about dying. My experience won’t be the same as others though.
Joe uses his piano to enter “The Zone” and find 22. She’s become a lost soul in desperate need of Joe’s reassurance. So Joe gives up his life in order to help 22 live. Joe earns his life back in return and chooses to live rather than chase a dream. I guess I just felt like there was more to see. A lot of questions concerning Joe’s life are left open ended. Maybe that was the point. I’ll probably soften up more after the movie ages a bit, but right now it was simply a satisfying experience with Pixar continuing to top themselves after all these years. The music is finely tuned with soulful jazz numbers, including an appropriate use of Impressions song “It’s All Right.” While certainly unique in portraying the before and afterlife, Soul is nevertheless a spirited journey more likely suited for an older crowd.
Joe Gardner teaches music