Movie Review: Soul
By Matthew Huntley
January 9, 2021
“Life is a journey, not a destination.”
We’ve all heard or read this quote in one form or another, and it remains a mystery who actually coined it first, but whatever the case, it’s still a time-honored maxim that always seems to recharge us and bring us back down to Earth. In a time when our minds seem all the more prone to spinning out of control and making us feel lost, the “journey…destination” line, however simple and idealistic, often acts as a beacon and guides back to a state of clarity, not to mention reality.
Like the phrase itself, none of what I wrote above is particularly new or groundbreaking, and in fact it can be considered hokey, conventional, and a cop-out when a story uses the longstanding motto as its central lesson and theme. But you know what? When it’s conveyed sincerely, it can still come across as fresh and have the power to lift us up, and Disney/Pixar’s latest computer-animated feature, “Soul,” does a worthy job of proving that.
This is another bright, jolly parable from the ever-reliable Pixar canon, and while it’s safe and digestible most of the time, it’s also padded with deeper, more thoughtful moments that are truly inspired and inventive, even dark and scary. Plus, it espouses clear yet practical advice we should all be heeding more often than not, and the fact the movie is geared toward families, particularly kids, means most audience members will be hearing what it has to say when they’re younger and more impressionable. In this case, that’s a good thing.
The movie follows the humble and likable Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a single, late-30s band teacher whose middle school students are more interested in texting and chewing gum than maintaining a euphonious rhythm and harmony. They don’t exactly inspire Joe, and so when his boss informs him he’s been made full-time, he’s more apathetic than happy. “Job security. Medical insurance. Pension,” the principal says excitedly. “Welcome to the family, Joe!”
Joe recognizes these are all good things, and he’s grateful for the opportunity, but he’s also disappointed, because even though teaching band to distracted youths pays the bills, his real “spark” comes from jazz. In fact, he’ll be the first to tell you, “My only purpose on this planet is to play. It’s what I was meant to do.” He’s believed this ever since his late father took him took him to a club when he was a kid to hear the “Black improvisational music” and Joe fell instantly in love with the way the notes carried him away.
Despite his talent and passion though, Joe’s music performance career never amounted to anything more than a gig here and there, and he settled on teaching to make ends meet. News of his full-time position certainly gives his mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) relief; she owns and runs her own tailoring and alteration shop and knows firsthand it takes hard work and sacrifice to make it in this world.
Joe does, too, but nevertheless, he refuses to give up on his dreams, and when his former student Curley (Questlove) calls him out of the blue to have him audition as the new piano player for Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the head and lead saxophonist of a local jazz quartet, Joe jumps at the chance. During his tryout for the implacable Dorothea, Joe improvises and we can see it’s music that gets inside him, lights him up, and gives his life meaning. Or say he thinks.
When Dorothea tells Joe to come back that night and play with her in front of a live audience, he’s on cloud nine and giddily busts out of the club. Distracted by his phone and not watching where he’s going, he suddenly falls down a manhole.
And just like that, “Soul” transports us from the loud, busy streets of New York City to a quiet, peaceful, outer space-looking realm with a conveyer belt slowly taking individuals to the Great Beyond. And Joe is no longer a tall, middle-aged, African-American man but a short, soft, blue-skinned blob (sort of a blue Casper the Friendly Ghost). It’s still Joe, but he’s now in “soul” form rather human form as his physical body lies comatose in a hospital.
Or at least it will until Joe enters the light of the Great Beyond, which he most certainly isn’t ready to do, not when he’s finally achieved his dream of becoming a jazz performer. He panics and squeezes through the realm’s invisible wall, nosediving down to the purplish, desert-like plane of the Great Before, a.k.a. the “You Seminar.” This is where new souls are birthed, nurtured and come of age. Mentors help the young souls complete their personality traits badge and “graduate” to Earth to live life corporeally.
All this Joe learns from the kind, gentle beings called Jerrys, who have semi-transparent figures and heads not unlike Woodstock from Peanuts. One Jerry, believing Joe to be a mentor, informs him he is neither in Heaven nor Hell, neither living nor dead. Rather, he’s in a bit of holding pattern before going off to the Great Beyond.
However, Joe is actually an impostor in the Great Before, and the Great Beyond’s stubborn accountant, Terry (Rachel House), is determined to find out why the numbers in the afterlife are suddenly off. In the meantime, Joe plays along with the idea he’s supposed to be counsel a young soul because he thinks it will be his ticket back to his earthly body.
It’s at this point that “Soul,” amidst explaining its own take on the beginning, middle and after phases of life, along with its sharp, beauteous and calming imagery, starts to shine and enwrap us. Following its quick but well-paced setup, the screenplay by director Pete Docter, co-director Kemp Powers, and Mike Jones expands its rich ideas, and one of the things we appreciate is the filmmakers assuming the audience is intelligent. They trust us to keep up with all the explanations of how things work in this particular universe, which is a surprise, given, as I mentioned above, the intended audience is on the younger side. But then, why shouldn’t the storytellers assume all viewers, even kids, are interested in birth, life and death, or even deeper subjects like existentialism? All humans are.
The Jerrys pair Joe with 22 (all souls are identified by a unique number), voiced by Tina Fey, whose inherently saucy, biting tone gives her stubborn, misanthropic 22 character an equally insolent personality. Despite its distinctiveness though, 22’s personality remains incomplete, as she has repeatedly failed to earn the final “spark” trait necessary to complete her badge, even after the world’s greatest mentors have offered her their tutelage, including Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali and Abraham Lincoln. No one has been able to help her discover her passion. Jaded and hopeless, 22 has accepted she’s a bit of a lost cause.
Joe, therefore, makes a deal with 22: if he finds a way to complete her badge, and thus render it an Earth pass, he’ll get to keep it and return to his body. 22 is all for it, since she’s come to believe the concept of living is pointless and this would allow her to skip out on life altogether. It’s a win-win for the both of them. Or so they think.
As we’ve come to expect from family adventures such as this, things don’t go according to the heroes’ plans. In order to get back down to Earth, Joe and 22 seek out the services of Moonwind Stardancer (Graham Norton), a “mystic without borders” who sails around on his giant ship in an area called “the zone,” that special place where our hearts and minds—and therefore our souls—go when we’re really into something and almost nothing can break our concentration, sometimes to a fault. Moonwind explains that souls sometimes get lost in the zone by becoming overly obsessed with their goals. When this happens, it’s Moonwind’s job to guide them back to their earthly selves.
Joe hastily has Moonwind open an Earth portal, but in an unforeseen twist that feels right at home in a Pixar universe, Joe ends up in the body of, well, someone other than himself. Without giving too much away, he and 22 suddenly find themselves in a race against time, lest they be lost forever. And, as they navigate their new, unexpected series of misadventures, both learn a few valuable life (or is it afterlife?) lessons along the way.
As touching and creative as “Soul” often gets, I was hoping the screenplay would have found a more original hinge on which to place the plot other the typical “race against time” scenario. Once it establishes this as its engine, the movie feels confined, even ordinary, and there’s a sense the filmmakers got too comfortable with the story sometimes being on autopilot. In fact, “Soul” often seemed like it was in a hurry to pack in as many conflicts as possible just to give the characters more loops to jump through. By the time the second half begins, the movie starts to feel machinated rather than flow seamlessly from one development to the next the way Docter’s wonderful “Up” and “Inside Out” did. This isn’t to say the conflicts and antics that ensue in “Soul” don’t fit in with the movie’s greater, nobler intentions; I just would have preferred a less conventional device to drive the narrative.
That being said, there are still many thoughtful and touching moments to speak of and the story often sweeps us up in its humanity and appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. During such scenes, the characters pause, talk, listen and learn. And, in turn, we really listen to them. One of the most memorable finds Joe and 22 recognizing the value of just being around other people and inquiring about their lives and histories; another has them tasting and savoring food. The movie gets us to ponder the idea we might all be more content if we actively listened to other people's words and relished the effects of things such food, as opposed to passively hearing words or mindlessly filling our stomachs. Like the “Life is a journey, not a destination” line, this may be obvious, but how often are we cognizant and proactive about ascribing meaning to everything we do and not just believing it’s all about the end result?
One aspect of the movie that catches us off guard, but for which the filmmakers deserve credit, is its willingness to have a dark and scary side (or at least dark and scary for a Pixar movie). When one character’s mind and soul get “disconnected,” they end up in a vicious cycle of obsession, becoming disturbingly defensive, withdrawn and unresponsive. We take to heart the movie’s warning that if we refuse to listen to our bodies, our minds. and/or our loved ones when they’re all telling us we’re focusing too hard and intently on one thing, it can lead to a bilious state of melancholy and depression. When we reach such a state, simple decisions, such as knowing which direction to step, can feel overwhelming, and the result can be maddening.
I was impressed the movie went here and illustrated this, not merely glossing over the fact dark thoughts are something we’re all susceptible to unless we practice self-compassion, patience and heed the signals that tell us when we need a break from pursuing our supposed “purpose.” It can be extremely difficult to obey the indicators, but when we do, we’re more likely to find balance.
“Soul” has a lot to offer, both superficially — with its visual presentation and broad, family-friendly comedy and slapstick shenanigans—and profoundly, with its unique interpretation of what gives our inner beings meaning and vitality. On the Pixar quality scale, it isn’t up to the level of an “Up” or “Inside Out” as far as consistency or creativity, but it still leaves a positive and valuable imprint on our hearts and minds, and these days (and every day), we could all use more of these.