Soul is another stunning beautiful triumph focusing on what it means to to be human and live life.
The film, exclusively streaming on Disney+ due to the COVID-19 pandemic, follows the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a struggling middle school music teacher who longs to be in the jazz world. Gardner one day, after much excitement over a jazz gig, falls into a manhole, dies and enters the Great Beyond with one thing on his mind: getting back to Earth. Along the way, he mets Soul 22 (Tina Fey, who refuses to come down to Earth wanting to stay in the Great Beyond. With Joe and Soul 22 in an unlikely pairing, can Joe make it back to Earth or will he have to suffer despair with Soul 22’s annoyance?
Soul takes and borrows here in there from pass animated achievements of Pixar with brilliant abstract imagery a la director Pete Doctor’s previous effort Inside Out as well as deal with human emotions such as that film and his other film Up. This works in favor to demonstrate this concepts that might be too confusing to some (even the film makes a crack about this) and gives lush dreamscapes a plenty. What also helps is the rich ethereal score by Trent Renzor and Atticus Ross, a team who have been doing phenomenal works since their score to The Social Network.
Back on Earth, there is beauty to be found in the photorealistic take of the city bringing New York City to life with wonderful lighting, lush backgrounds and character design that, though cartoony, feels human. The barbershop scene alone feels like something one would see in any regular live-action film. The abstract designs in the Great Beyond are akin to 2D line drawing which way think audiences are looking at Krazy Straws come to life.
(Credit to @sincerelyivymarie on Twitter for that comparison. It’s spot-on.)
The voice cast as well is just as rich with Tina Fey balancing between annoyance and sympathetic and Foxx’s Gardner showing his love and devotion to himself and his music. One particular voice that springs to mind is Rachel House as Terry who is arrogant and job-obsessed. The border on being a villain in the film, but are more so just a person who really hopes doesn’t want fuck up their job.
The plot is a beautiful moving journey of what it means to find purpose in life and what exactly it means to be human. There is a moment in this film that creates a montage that fulfills this idea that is sure to bring a tear to the eye without coming across as too emotionally manipulative. Think Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, but done in less than two minutes as opposed to two hours and twenty minutes.
However, this film does cling to a trope that needs to be put to bed. That trope is not letting black main characters be black human characters. What I mean is how Joe is whisked into the Great Beyond turns him into a blue soul, devoid of his Earth body. However, it’s a twist in the second act that also involves him not being in his own body that pushes this into the trope.
This was seen in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, which has Princess Tiana turn into a frog, and in 2019’s Spies in Disguise, which sees Will Smith’s Lance Sterling’s character turned into a pigeon. This is the third film to do this and, while the film is nothing short of spectacular, playing into that trope is really bad. The standout against this trope is 2018’s Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, which allows Miles Morales to be a black human character, growing and developing without turning into an animal or ethereal being, but rather become the next Spider-Man.
It’s tiresome and disheartening to see and, personally, I hope studios take a note. It’s not fair that other white characters get to explore their culture, their life and their growth without having some whimsical transformation. Heck, even going further back, other POCs got the same treatment such as Inuit native Kenai in 2003’s Brother Bear was turned into a bear and Incan native Kuzco turn into a llama in 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove.
Soul is still a marvel of thoughtful story and wondrous imagery like one would expect from Pixar. It adds another beautiful journey in a canon ripe with fantastic human journeys, even if this journey includes an already tired cliche.
Soul is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. It is available exclusively on Disney+ as of this time of writing.