In Soul a middle aged substitute band teacher, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) finally gets his big chance to play jazz with a famed musician only to find himself suddenly dead. Feeling cheated and unwilling to accept his back luck, Joe tries to run from the great beyond. He escapes the path to the great beyond only to wind up in the great before or You-Seminar, where new souls are given unique personalities. Trying not to get caught, Joe becomes a mentor for a new soul, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). 22 has no interest in going to Earth to live a life and has annoyed countless prestigious mentors (a very funny quick montage shows a few). 22 agrees to help Joe get to Earth so that she never has to, but in an unexpected mishap, (SPOILER ALERT!) 22 winds up in Joe’s body and Joe’s soul has to guide her, as his soul fell into a cat.
I’ve said it before and here again, I’m astounded by the visual way Pixar chooses to express and explain such abstract concepts in a way that’s age appropriate for children and still captivating for adults. The dark, vast escalator to The Great Beyond is a very cool way to visualize death without making it too scary. The great beyond (which we don’t really see) is depicted here like a vast white light that zaps like a bug zapper with each soul that passes. The whole You-Seminar area is very dreamy and abstract. And I love the very liniar Picasso style Jerry’s and Terry while the souls have a softer, nearly blurry appearance.
Soul is Pixar’s first feature film centered around an African-American character. While there are some gripes about the fact that Joe spends much of the film out of his body, the filmmakers do a great job of bringing Joe and those surrounding him to life. Never before have I seen such quality animation on a diverse collection of characters. Joe, his mom, Dorothea Williams and everyone in the barber shop are unique, fleshed out characters that never fall back on stereotypes. In fact, the barbershop scene is one of the best set within the physical world. It’s apparent that co-director Kemp Powers had a steady hand on the wheel along with the veteran Pixar director, Pete Doctor.
I love how Pixar addresses the very human mistake of misunderstanding a soul’s spark. Poor 22 has spent so much time with so many prestigious soul mentors under the delusion and ill guidance that a spark equals a purpose in life. It isn’t until 22 is in Joe’s living body that a spark is found. Is the spark music? No. The spark is just a will to live. It’s wonder. It’s that intangible feeling that makes life a joy.
A film centered around a jazz musician has to have a killer soundtrack. From upbeat jazz numbers, to the soft soulful piano solos, the music in Soul pushes the story forward. Scenes in the You-Seminar have much more organically modern, techno-oriented sound. At times, it can grip at our soul and take it on the journey beyond worlds with Joe, or let us understand 22’s new perspective. It’s a beautiful score, worthy of its Oscar nomination. And it boasts my new favorite rendition of When You Wish Upon a Star.
What may have begun or was pitched as an animated movie about jazz became a film breaking down our conceptions on life, its meaning and our purpose as living creatures. It’s refreshing to see a film for all ages that doesn’t push any agenda about finding your purpose or achieving your dreams but in the end lets us know that it’s ok to just live and enjoy the ride. To find some joy. To simply be, bask in the wonder and don’t get bogged down in trying to fulfill some purpose or dream that may or may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The world is so much bigger than whatever little mission you have for your life, don’t weigh yourself down.
“And the thing is, you’re pretty great at jazzing.”