Soul, the new animated film streaming on Disney+, is the best antidote for anyone suffering because of what’s happening in these difficult times. Director Peter Docter (Inside Out, Up) and co-director Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) have crafted a thought provoking, entertaining, and meaningful film that is enhanced by Pixar’s increasingly unbelievable computer animation.
Don’t go into viewing this thinking that this is a children’s film – though it is perfectly fine for them unless they are below 10 – because its subject matter is for adults too. It is timely released for those of us who have lost jobs or are working from home and questioning their place in life and hoping for validation or wanting something more.
The voice cast is excellent, headed by Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, a part-time middle school band teacher who has always dreamt of the big time as a musician. When we see him in class with the students, he is a little exasperated as they try but struggle to play their instruments, but Connie (Cora Champommier) stands out, playing her trumpet like a pint-sized Louis Armstrong. If nothing else, she gives him hope when he feels there is none.
On top of this moment, Joe is called into the hallway by Principal Arroyo (Jeannie Tirado) and notified that he has been promoted to full-time. She reminds him of what that means, including benefits and medical coverage, and Joe stares at his papers in disbelief. While this middle-aged teacher should be ecstatic about such good news, Joe’s expression tells us that he is not.
Joe sees his taking a full-time job as giving up the dream of making it big as a musician. Then that job comes through for him – Curley (Questlove), a former student, calls with a gig of a lifetime to play with a famous singer Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) in the hottest club in town.
After his audition is a success and he gets the gig, Joe’s elation and excitement cause him to wander the streets of New York dazed and confused, and after almost getting killed in traffic, he isn’t looking where he is going and falls into an open manhole.
Suddenly, Joe is no longer on Earth and winds up in The Great Beyond, which is like a cosmic bridge to a huge white light. Joe (now a bluish blob wearing a hat and eyeglasses to help identify him) knows that if he keeps walking with these other souls, it is all over. He turns around and runs the other way, eventually falling into The Great Before, which is like the waystation for souls not ready for The Great Beyond.
Here we encounter gate keepers who look like they are made of neon light tubes, young souls who are little blue blips, and lost souls who are hideous and angry. Joe gets mistaken for a famous doctor and is assigned to young soul 22 (the hilarious Tina Fey), who for centuries has evaded all attempts to be sent down to Earth to occupy a body.
Joe and 22 form a kind of bond as he tries to show her all the good things that await her on Earth – like pizza – but she remains unconvinced. Still, Joe thinks if he can get her to go to the spot where souls leave for Earth that he can hitch a ride with her and somehow get back into his body and make that gig on time.
The rest of the way is spoiler territory – I purposely did not watch any trailers because I’ve been told they spoil one of best plot twists ever – and I am not going to ruin things here for you.
The visual aspects of the film are astounding. If you have ever ridden in a NYC subway car, you will appreciate how much Pixar gets all the details right. That especially can be said about the city itself, which is like another character because the film captures its essence.
Soul’s score is rather special as well – the music is appropriate in every scene – and reminded me of Up in that regard. Trent Reznor, Atticus Rose, and John Batiste (for the jazz selections) have done an amazing job here, filling the movie with glorious music fitting for every emotion that the characters experience.
Some have questioned the religious aspects of the film, but there is no mention of any deities or even heaven. The film makers clearly imply that there is an afterlife (Joe) and a life before birth (22), and that existence is the soul itself. While little kids will be confused and perhaps scared by some scenes and situations – this is no Toy Story – kids 10 and older will understand what’s going.
Soul is a gorgeous film to see and hear, filled with wonder and delight, and it celebrates the awesome importance of each human life. In the last seconds of the film, your heart should be filled with joy and confidence that every one of us matters!