What is your purpose? What is the meaning of life? What do you do when you haven’t gotten all you want to out of your life? Those are some of the big questions posed in Disney Pixar’s “Soul.” The animation studio’s latest film is made for adults more than any of its previous work, and the result is a movie that—while it doesn’t quite come together as successfully as some of Pixar’s best—is a moving existential journey that feels like the movie we need right now.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, with a screenplay by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, “Soul” follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged New York City middle school music teacher who feels unhappy because he still hasn’t achieved his dreams of becoming a successful jazz musician. He finally gets his chance when one of his former students, Curly (Questlove), invites him to audition to fill a pianist spot in the famous Dorothea Williams Quartet. Joe gets the gig, but in his excitement, he falls down a manhole. His disembodied soul ends up in the Great Before, where he needs to help 22 (Tina Fey), a cynical soul who has been in the Great Before for a long time because it doesn’t want to go to Earth, find its spark so he can reunite with his body in time for his performance.
Joe Gardner is the first Black lead in a Pixar movie, and from all accounts it sounds like the studio consulted with as many people as possible to get their portrayal of African American culture in the movie right, from the jazz scene to Joe’s neighborhood barber shop. But while in that regard this is a ground-breaking movie for Pixar, Joe doesn’t spend that much time in his own body in the film. “Soul” makes a bold choice a little ways into the movie that will be controversial to some, and felt a little off to me as well. The film mentions early on that 22 is a genderless entity, who chose to use the voice of a white woman because others found it annoying, but it does feel like parts of the film focus on 22 more than Joe, and Joe isn’t even super likeable for parts of the story as his putting his needs and wants first comes off as selfish. But it is by seeing 22 discover the simple joys in life that Joe discovers them as well and realizes what he’s been missing. Regardless of some of the problematic ways in which it is portrayed, the relationship between Joe and 22 in the movie is essential.
But as mentioned before, “Soul” does by and large do a good job portraying Black culture onscreen. The character designs exhibit a variety of shapes and colors (the film’s gorgeous lighting helps too), coming a long way from the racial stereotypes that were prevalent in the early days of animation. The cast also includes Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother Libba, with whom he has a tense relationship because she wants him to choose a stable career over pursuing gigs. Angela Bassett voices the tough Dorothea Williams, Daveed Diggs is Joe’s neighbor Paul, with whom he doesn’t really get along, and Donnell Rawlings is Joe’s barber Dez. Foxx brings a warmth to Joe that makes him relatable even if he isn’t always likeable, as well as a sense of enthusiasm about his dreams. Fey is appropriately quirky as 22, who has frustrated many soul mentors in the Great Before with her refusal to cooperate; many viewers will likely find her view of life on Earth as soul crushing relatable too. Graham Norton has a fun role as Moonwind, a spiritual hippie traveler through the Great Before who helps lost souls, and Rachel House is hilarious as Terry, a creature shaped like a mouse who keeps track of all the souls venturing into the Great Beyond. Also a comedic highlight of the film are Alica Braga and Richard Ayoade, who voice all of the soul counselors in the Great Before, all named Jerry.
One of the coolest things about “Soul” is how it differentiates the Great Before and Great Beyond from Earth, visually and audibly. “Soul” is a great New York movie; it portrays the city as gritty, loud, and crowded, but also filled with wonderful things. It manages to find joy even in a crowded subway station. The environments are rendered extremely realistically, stylized just a bit to give them a touch of whimsy. Here, the scenes are filled with a beautiful jazz score by Jon Batiste, who also served as a reference for the animators on the scenes where Joe plays piano. In contrast, the Great Before is very colorful, but flat. Its inhabitants are made up of round shapes or 2D lines. There’s little personality to the rather bland environments because all the little souls who live there are only just gaining their personalities and their desire to live before making their way to Earth. Here, the music is scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, giving these metaphysical sequences a completely different vibe.
The world-building in the Great Before (which is essentially the place where new souls gain their spark), however, isn’t as well thought through as the places explored in other Pixar films are. The opening is rather rushed, and there isn’t much that’s particularly clever about it. This is another movie, like “Inside Out,” where many of the characters are concepts, but “Soul” doesn’t always tackle them as hard as it could have. But despite all that, “Soul” still successfully balances humor and heart, and the message of the film is very clear, and very moving. Life is not meaningless; life is meaningful in and of itself, regardless of whether or not you have fulfilled some grand purpose or are feeling stuck. There are some absolutely devastating moments in the film where we see lost souls who are plagued with the feeling that they aren’t good enough, and never will be. The best moments in “Soul” are the ones that show us that that doesn’t matter. Everything else fades away, and all we see is Joe, playing piano for himself, listening to someone else play music, eating a good slice of pizza, or just quietly watching leaves fall from the sky.
“Soul” is now streaming on Disney Plus. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated PG.