For a long time, Pixar films have captured our imaginations with tender storytelling and captivating animation. Toys have come to life, monsters have scared young children, and an incredible family has fought enemies together. In the new film Soul, Pixar delves into the afterlife, but this time with mixed effects. The story focuses on a jazz pianist who has a near-death experience just when he lands the gig of a lifetime. He becomes trapped in the afterlife and has to rely on a sparkless soul to get back to Earth.
Interestingly, Soul is more adult than previous Pixar offerings, but when it leaves Earth, the film struggles to find its footing and gets bogged down in copious exposition explaining the rules of the world. When we eventually come back (no spoilers here), Soul feels more grounded and relatable. As expected, the imagery is tantalizing, particularly in the nightclub scenes where our lead Joe auditions to play with the legendary jazz musician Dorothea Williams. Backlit with a gorgeous azure hue, Dorothea effortlessly sings with her saxophone as Joe transports to a colorful galaxy of jazz inflections. What an experience this would’ve been to see on the big screen.
It may take a while to get there, but Soul captures the magic of Pixar.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a jazz musician teaching part-time at a school where the students are less than enthused to be in class. He is surprised when the principal gives him a full-time teaching position, including great pay, benefits, and job security. But Joe aspires to play on stage, and his dreams are not yet dead.
He gets a call from an old student Curley (Questlove), who invites him to audition with Dorothea Williams' (Angela Bassett) band. Elated but against his mother's (Phylicia Rashad) best wishes, Joe nails the audition in a fantastical moment where his playing transports his soul. When he finishes, the band stands between shocked and mesmerized, and he is invited back that evening to perform. However, in his excitement, Joe mindlessly falls into an open maintenance hole as he walks home and is transported to the Great Beyond, a long walkway that leads souls into white light. He quickly flees and is thrown into purgatory in The Great Before.
What follows is Joe attempting to get back to Earth for his dream gig. He poses as a mentor to fresh souls who discover their spark and can go down to enjoy Earth. Unfortunately, Joe is paired with the troubled 22 (Tina Fey), who has worked with some of the greatest minds but has never found her purpose and is reluctant to go down to Earth. It is now up to Joe to help her find her spark so that he can venture home, inhabit his body and fulfill his lifelong dream of being a working jazz musician.
The story's set-up is loads of fun, and the animation beautifully underscores Joe's love for music. However, that is the extent of his character development before Joe is thrust into the Great Before and Beyond. Of course, Joe is going through a mid-life crisis, but we don't have access to his world before he falls into the manhole, limiting our attachment to him. There is too much time spent in purgatory that the film sags in its second act. However, when we come back to Earth later in the movie, the script by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers becomes more directed toward Joe's life. (Though, without spoiling the film, Joe is not exactly himself).
Soul shines when director Pete Docter can play on Earth with its unique array of grounded, supporting characters and highlight Jazz's effect on Joe's life. The sequences in which he plays the piano are beautifully affecting, with original music by Trent rezone and Atticus Ross catapulting the story into vivacious, dream-like realms. It's a missed opportunity that the writers took this literally and included the story in a limbo world, but this is Pixar, and you know there's an end goal in sight.
On Earth, Joe's encounters with life's divine joys are beautifully understated. His conversations with a barber, and other eavesdropping customers, elevate a scene in a barbershop while Joe gets a haircut. The wonderfully realized discussion pops with authenticity and charm, and the film becomes undeniably engaging. These little pleasures for Joe are illuminating to how blinded he has become to those around him, and his world continues expanding.
At one point in the Great Before, 22 mentions, ' You can't crush a soul here. That's what life on Earth is for.' Well, if Joe teaches us anything, it's that dreams may not work out the way you imagine, but life is about the enjoyment of all of our senses. Eating pepperoni pizza, watching falling leaves, hearing amazing stories from acquaintances, and being able to embrace our loved ones.
Nourish your soul. It's never too late.
Now available to stream on Disney+.