Every now and then, Pixar releases a film that is not just enjoyable or even powerful but truly special.
Soul is one of those films.
Directed by Pete Docter, Soul is a film that admittedly feels like it’s been made for adults but kids should still love as well. While Docter’s previous hits Monsters Inc. and Inside Out targeted the fears and dreams of children and youth, Soul takes a more mature approach that places the emphasis on the middle-aged Joe Gardner. While the film makes every effort to incorporate Pixar’s trademark sense of humour and joy, the film’s focus on Joe’s journey makes it noticeably different in its tone. As a result, this is arguably Pixar’s most ambitious piece since Inside Out by attempting to grapple with the spiritual realities of the afterlife in a way that feels authentic but still remains relevant to kids.
Now airing on Disney+, Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who yearns for something more. Passionate about jazz music, Gardner wants to be on stage yet he feels stuck. After his sudden death, Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has yet to begin her life on Earth and seems unable to find her ‘spark’. Together, the two fight to help Joe reclaim his life while also helping 22 discover why life is worth living in the first place.
Featuring endearing performances from Foxx and Fey, Soul’s characters feel true to life. As Gardner, Foxx brings a relentless ambition to the character yet never loses his earnestness in the process. Meanwhile, Fey bring an innocence and enthusiasm to 22 that counterbalances Gardner’s cynicism. However, despite solid work from its leads, the stand out performances stem from secondary characters played by icons Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad. At every opportunity, Bassett and Rashad steal their respective scenes as they embed their characters with their own unique blend of gravitas and confidence.
As one would hope, the music of Soul is one of the film’s most inspiring aspects. Featuring a stellar soundtrack by John Batiste, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (?!), the film is a testament to the power of music and its spiritual qualities. In each musical number, Soul showcases music as a transcendent experience that speaks to the very… well… soul of the performer. To Gardner, music isn’t just something he plays. It releases a deep joy within him that transports him into a higher plane. In this way, Gardner interacts with spiritual realm, unleashing an inner creativeness. that (literally here) points to the Divine.
Co-written by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), the film is willing to engage African American culture in New York. Beyond the music itself, Soul makes sure to celebrate everyday moments like a quick stop at the barbershop or buying a new suit. Coming in the midst of a year when racial conversations have been brought to the forefront, these subtle inclusions provide the film with an additional layer of importance that inspires the viewer.
In fact, that spirit of the everyday speaks directly into the heart of the film. Though portions of the film take place in the afterlife, Soul is most interested in the way that we interact with the world around us. (In fact, much of the afterlife depicted within the film is shown as either a place of transitioning between realms or preparing for their new life, rather than eternity itself.) By partnering the two souls together, Gardner has the opportunity to reclaim his sense of wonder for the world around him while 22 continues to grow in strength about her new journey. Emphasizing the value of ‘jazzing through life’, Soul understands that there’s beauty in experiencing the moments around us, whether it’s helping a friend or grabbing a slice of pizza. In essence, this is a film which wants to encourage kids to step out and engage their lives while, at the same time, encouraging adults to support them along the way.
What’s most interesting about Soul, however, is the film’s more grounded take on realizing your dreams. For a company that calls us to ‘Wish Upon a Star’, Soul takes an almost anti-Disney approach by pointing out that one can’t always bank on their hopes and dreams to come true. For example, though he yearns to play on stage, Gardner cannot seem to get his ‘big break’. Struggling as a Jr. High music teacher, he lives his life in a constant state of waiting, making endless backup plans in an effort to be ready when his chance at success finally comes. However, in doing so, Gardner is never satisfied with the impact he makes on the lives of others. As a result, he fails to recognize the true beauty of the moment and his place within the world. While never stating that one shouldn’t have ambition, this is a staggeringly sober realization for any animated film, especially from the House of Mouse. (In fact, the film even goes so far as to suggest that those who remain trapped by their dreams can become ‘lost souls’ who never realize their potential on Earth.)
Ambitious and poignant, the spiritual journey of Joe Gardner feels relevant to anyone who has ever felt like their dreams remain out of reach. Though Soul feels more appropriate for adults than youth at times, it’s passion for embracing life is appropriate for all ages. As Joe and 22 work together to find their ‘spark’, the spiritual bedrock bubbles to the surface, challenging and encouraging families at the same time.
In other words, this is a film which knows the power of a Soul.
To hear our conversation with director Pete Docter and producer Dana Murray, click here.
Soul is available on Disney+ on December 25th, 2020.