Awards Season Chasing Oscar 2021 Movies

Pixar Seeks, and Finds, its ‘Soul’

Through the power of music and Blackness, Pixar takes on a charming, enjoyable metaphysical journey.

Pixar became one of Hollywood’s most triumphant movie studios by imagining a world where everything had a soul. Toys, cars, bugs, monsters, post-apocalyptic robots: there was potential in everything around us to possess that immaterial, spiritual essence that makes every person unique in their own right.

It was only a matter of time before Pixar reflected on souls themselves and why they are critical to the studio’s unprecedented success. For such an inventive, boundary-breaking, and, frankly, weird enterprise, the question was always “how” rather than “when.” How would the animators bring the lifeblood of its canon to life? What form would a soul take, and, most importantly, who would be our guide to understanding what having a soul means?

Soul, Pixar’s 23rd film, answers these questions by taking us into the life of Joe Gardner, a struggling jazz musician who also teaches music at a New York public school. Voiced by Jamie Foxx, Joe is deeply passionate about his art, but, as his mother reminds him, it doesn’t pay the bills. Joe’s big break seems to finally arrive when he is offered an opportunity to sub in with Dorothea Williams’ (Angela Bassett) famous jazz quartet. He’s so excited about the gig that he accidentally falls into a sewer. When he comes to, he’s no longer in his body, but as a bluish-green blob headed up to the “Great Beyond.” Joe frantically tries to escape his heavenly fate and ends up in the “Great Before,” where souls are first born and formed before being sent to Earth to begin their lives. There, he’s assigned as a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a disaffected soul who’s as desperate to avoid Earth as much as Joe wants to return to it. Together, they embark on a wild, wacky, body-swapping journey to better understand each other and what it means to live a life.

(Courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures)

I would be remiss not to acknowledge that Soul is the first Pixar film – after 25 years – to have a Black lead character. As significant as that is, it’s easy to imagine all of the ways the film could’ve gone wrong or failed to show the Black experience through the Pixar lens. Director Pete Docter and his co-screenwriters Mike Jones and Kemp Powers understand that there is no monolithic Black experience, and they craft Joe Gardner’s world accordingly. They build around him a vibrant, bustling New York that feels deeply connected to the jazz music he loves, allowing us to “see” the world through his eyes and understand his deep love and commitment for the genre. The film can sometimes have a vintage 1920’s Harlem vibe that, in less deft hands, would slip into historical fantasy. However, Docter and the creative team ground the movie in modern Black experiences specific to Joe’s life and instantly relatable. Joe and 22’s frantic visit to the barbershop or Joe’s mother (Phylicia Rashad) scolding him about his career prospects while working to mend clothes in her store feel real. If there is one commonality across Black America, it is the strong sense of community, and Soul does a good job bringing that to life. 

Just as impressive is how Soul renders the world outside of life: the “Great Beyond” and the “Great Before.” Docter envisions pre-existence as one of soft and warm pastels tinged with neon energy, evoking the exciting yet uncertain promise of new life. Occupying the lush grassy plains are the souls themselves, bluish-green balls of youthful vigor, and their counselors, electric-white outlines of relatively easygoing beings considering their momentous tasks. It’s a stunningly immersive visual feast, the kind you could meander in for hours. To its credit, the film rejects the impulse and zips across dimensions, astral planes, hospital rooms, and subway platforms to keep up with Joe and 22’s discovery of themselves. 

(Courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures)

Soul plays so much with space and its duo’s combative chemistry that you can underestimate the complexities of its themes of death and spirituality. Through Joe and 22’s adventures on Earth, the film surfaces its most profound observations, landing with significant weight through its characters’ stunned expressions. The most affecting is Joe’s gradual realization that the impact you make on others can matter as much, if not more, than achieving what you assume is your life’s purpose. Pre-destined purpose is the driving force behind much of the plot and character motivations. The movie offers a message of self-actualization that satisfies the narrative and is freeing to absorb. Unfortunately, those two takeaways clash in an ending that leaves Joe’s resolution frustratingly open-ended.

Whatever stumbles it may take at the very end, Soul is a worthy and welcome addition to the Pixar collection. Like the canon’s absolute best, the film distills thematic richness into an emotionally resonant, visually splendid work that children and adults can appreciate. And yet, that isn’t what makes it special. It feels significant that a unique Black experience framed an inherently spiritual tale; the fact that this is Pixar’s first Black-led film reads as an overdue acknowledgment of our contributions to both cinema and spirituality. Like most “firsts,” Soul isn’t perfect but does point towards a more meaningful, authentic expansion of Disney’s wonderful world.

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