A Little Bit of ‘Soul’

Pixar’s latest imagines its most unrealistic scenario yet: a New York City teeming with life and culture

Disney/Pixar sure picked a weird time to release their “get out and live every day to the fullest” movie. But here it is, so let’s dive in!

Jamie Foxx stars as Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher in New York City who’s always dreamed of being a professional jazz pianist. When he finally gets a gig, he’s so excited he falls straight into a manhole while walking home, and dies. Maybe.

Soul is the fourth film from director Pete Docter (Up). Docter moves from his last movie’s (Inside Out) brain-centric plot to… yeah, soul. Essence. The elusive thing that makes you you. It’s a weighty topic, and with its focus on a frustrated, lonely middle-aged guy, Soul doesn’t exactly feel aimed at children. It’s up there with WALL-E as one of Disney’s more existential, deliciously melancholy experiences. It made me wonder if the Pixar people have been secretly binging the recent works of Don Hertzfeldt.

SOUL ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Pete Docter
Written by: Pete Docter, Mike Jones
Starring:  Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Angela Bassett
Running time: 100 min

Joe’s blue-blob soul, desperate to make it back to Earth for that performance with a jazz legend (Angela Bassett), ends up in a soothing blue-and-purple landscape that’s called The Great Before, and is scored to synth perfection by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If I needed any more proof that I’m old, it’s that Nine Inch Nails is now on Disney’s payroll.

This film’s first half takes place in The Great Before, where souls are imbued with characteristics before jumping out of a giant hole and flying down to Earth. (Just go with it.) Unborn little blue blobs are bouncing around hoovering up personality traits before they make the leap to personhood. They’re shepherded by various overseers, all named Jerry, who look like Picasso line drawings and dole out gentle, alarming bits of info to Joe: “You can’t crush a soul here–that’s what life on Earth is for.”

Jamie Foxx’s Soul teaches Tina Fey’s Soul about pizza, in Pixar’s ‘Soul’.

As Joe branches out, he discovers the hinterlands of this realm, including “The Zone,” where people on Earth go when they’re really hitting their stride creatively, and a dark side with nightmarish, tentacled “lost souls” traipsing around.

But it’s when Joe is appointed mentor to a recalcitrant soul called 22, voiced by Tina Fey, that things really take off. 22’s stubborn refusal to find the “spark” that brings a human to life has made her the scourge of countless mentors past, Abraham Lincoln, Carl Jung and Mahatma Gandhi among them. 22 is basically Liz Lemon of 30 Rock in non-corporeal form, and it’s fabulous to be with her again.

The pair will eventually end up back on Earth, trying to propel Joe to that long-awaited gig and get 22 to understand why being alive is worth all the fuss.

As in almost all the Pixar movies (not you, Cars), endless clever asides will reward multiple watches. There’s a shout-out to Pizza Rat, two cat’s-asshole jokes, and a muttered remark about hailing a cab while Black. I can’t remember a Pixar film that’s nailed the specificity of New York City so well; the streets and shops and random urban oddballs are all rendered in exquisite detail. Graham Norton voices a mystic named Moonwind who turns out to be one of those guys manically twirling a sign on a midtown corner. A scene in a Black barbershop veers from light chitchat to the heart of human connection.

Soul uses beauty and humor and slapstick to ask the big questions. What gives you purpose? Is it the same thing as your career? Or your passion in life?

Joe’s passion, jazz, is gorgeously performed by musician Jon Batiste (Herbie Hancock, Questlove, and Daveed Diggs also contributed). This is what Joe thinks gives him his spark. But what happens if you get the thing you’ve been chasing your whole life? What comes after? (I don’t have kids, but again, I just can’t imagine this going over big with the under-10 set.)

As with any Disney property, I also had a few concerns.

When he first sorta-dies, Joe finds himself on an astral conveyor belt headed to a giant white light called The Great Beyond. When souls get to it, they disappear in a flash. “Like a bug zapper,” my husband observed. I’m curious how this will play with little kids. Is it helpful to think of Grandma as having gone to the great bug zapper in the sky?

Does Docter really need to lean so heavily on how lonely it is that Joe eats by himself in a diner? A lot of people, this writer included, really enjoy a solo meal out in NYC.

Are people from the anti-choice realm going to latch onto this whole business of unborn souls having personalities? Is that going to be a thing?

And finally, whose soul ends up in the cat? I can’t say more, but I think this is a valid concern.

Qualms aside, Soul is one of the more thought-provoking Pixar releases in years. If you’re looking for wonder, steer clear of Warner Bros’ latest offering and check this out instead.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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