by Philip Price
Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey & Graham Norton
Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes
Disney and Pixar have always had a tradition of being innovative if not groundbreaking, but with their latest “Soul” the animation studio pushes itself to what is unquestionably the most existential ground they've ever broken. What might have driven writing/directing duo Pete Docter (“Up,” “Inside Out”) and Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”) to not only address death outright in an animated movie seemingly intended for children, but place it front and center as the biggest hurdle our protagonist has to overcome in the context of the film is a curious strategy. It's bold to say the least, but by the time my wife and I were a mere 13 minutes in we were already convinced this would be far too much for our six-year-old to handle as she already bursts into spontaneous tears at bedtime before bringing up that she doesn't want to lose her mom and dad to what “Soul” refers to as "The Great Beyond." It's not hard to understand why the ambition to tackle such difficult subject matter is present as movies are more than capable of being counseling and coping tools, but the question I was left to ponder as Jon Batiste's wonderful rendition of "It's All Right" played over the closing credits was why Docter and Powers along with co-writer Mike Jones felt it necessary to try and steer children through the reality of death by barreling into the topic headfirst rather than finding an avenue through which to better explore the more prevalent themes like the idea of success equaling satisfaction or notoriety equaling credibility. There are glimpses of these ideas early on as we're introduced to Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) and witness him wrestling with a conflict that pits his need for gratification against a more enduring legacy, but “Soul” quickly transitions to feeling as if Docter took the concept of “Inside Out” (as well as some of the character designs) and applied it to the afterlife as opposed to personifying emotions. It's like if a band started re-configuring their "greatest hits" while only being three full-length studio albums into their career; you want to remind the people why they fell in love with you in the first place, but you don't want your sound to stop growing and evolving. That isn't to say “Soul” finds fault for a lack of growth or evolution, but given the ethereal feel of this world we've never seen before along with the fact the film kills off its lead in the first half hour in order to answer questions about the meaning of life it would seem that, upon the film's conclusion, that some of the answers to those big questions would be a little more deeply felt, that they might tug at the heart strings a little more, or maybe even touch something deep inside one’s ... soul.
So yes, we are introduced to our hero in Joe - who it is worth noting is Pixar's first Black lead - and we immediately understand his passion for music and in particular, jazz. His anxiety about having finally been offered something more permanent in the form of a full-time teaching gig is noted as he seems to decide this offer would threaten the chance of him ever fulfilling his own dreams as opposed to helping usher the next generation toward theirs. Coincidentally, the same day Joe gets the full-time offer he also lands an opportunity via a former student, Curley (voice of Questlove), to audition for famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voice of Angela Bassett). And then, yes, he bites the dust. Joe turns into an amoeba-like organism meant to represent only his soul and is hurtling toward a great white light in the star speckled sky before realizing what has happened to him. In an effort to escape this seeming inevitability Joe runs in the opposite direction of heaven's gate which funnily enough makes the same sound when a soul enters heaven as a bug does when it enters a large light trap. Zap. Joe somehow finds himself in "The Great Before" or what is now being re-branded as the "You Seminar" according to a two dimensional line named Jerry (voice of Alice Braga) who tells us she is the coming together of all quantitated fields of the universe in a fashion feeble human brains can comprehend. Jerry, along with other Jerries (voiced most notably by folks such as Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi) serve as counselors to all the new souls preparing to go to Earth by helping them each find their unique and individual personalities. This could range from being an agreeable skeptic who is cautious yet flamboyant to a manipulative megalomaniac whose intensely opportunistic all of which naturally become earth's problems once they hop through a portal. On each of these new souls there is a futuristic bar code with seven open spots that help determine said personality and character traits. In most cases, souls fill these out on their own but sometimes the category for what is referred to as a soul's "spark" is harder to fill and thus the reason the Jerries will bring in eminent souls from the great beyond to serve as mentors to these new souls still searching for their "spark". Of course, as Joe is digesting all of this exposition he naturally zones out when a Jerry is explaining what one’s "spark" actually is. This leads Joe to make a few assumptions and go chasing after what he believes his purpose to be rather than what it is that will motivate to live a life really, truly. In other words, what we believe we're born to do isn't always what will bring us the most happiness.
After his short detour into "The Great Before," Joe comes away with the idea all he needs to do is help one of these new souls complete their quest to fill in their final spot and then take their earth badge and return to his body and his life. What Joe didn't count on was being paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who views itself more as a theoretical construct in a hypothetical way station between life and death than a soul preparing for the reward of life earth. The idea that souls now departed from earth are allowed to return to the "You Seminar" and mentor new souls in a way that helps prepare them for life is a great piece of imagination that has been expounded on by hundreds of other imaginations coming together to work toward that single goal of expressing Powers and Docter's themes in their most effective fashion. The film also gets some solid miles out of the jokes able to be made from 22 having turned even the most compassionate of mentors (Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln among them) into quitters. The situation Joe and 22 find themselves in might actually work out for the best though, given 22 has no interest in going to earth and that is all Joe desires. If the two can simply find 22's "spark" and complete her belly badge Joe could take it and return home while 22 would seemingly be free to go on floating around in the big hypothetical that is "The Great Before".
It's to the screenplays credit that this doesn't mirror “Inside Out” completely by then making the backbone of the film the journey of discovering what 22's spark is, but instead Powers, Docter, and Jones take the story in unexpected directions by first having our heroes escape to "the zone" or the space between the physical and the spiritual realms AKA the headspace people enter when they're really into something. This "zone" commonly seems to be filled by artists and athletes (there is an out and out scorcher of a Knicks joke that's so good I need to know who deserves credit for it). It is here that Joe meets Moonwind (Graham Norton) - one of those guys who stands on the corner and spins a sign on earth but is the leader of a troupe called "Mystics Without Borders" in the "zone" or, in other words, his "subconscious". Moonwind and his team help lost souls find their way and thus the reason 22 brought Joe to them - not necessarily because she perceived him as lost, but because he needs to physically locate his body yet there might be reason for us to believe this is exactly where Joe needed to be taken. We see Moonwind and his band of mystics light the necessary fire under "another hedge fund manager" who was clearly in a funk and needed reminding that there's more out there to live for than the rewards his life was currently returning. It's another neat little facet the trio of writers came up with and the directing duo bring an inventive vibrancy to as far as the visuals are concerned, but it also feels like the biggest narrative leap; the one that is most convenient and allows us to see the cracks in the story development process as it feels abundantly evident "the zone" was created to alter the course of the rest of the narrative. Allowing Joe to re-connect with his body via "the zone" leads to a final hour that more or less utilizes a body swap conceit in order to teach Joe (and 22, to an extent) about that everlasting conundrum of spending the present investing in what will pay out with the most meaning in the end. It's no revelatory idea necessarily (although a reminder is always nice), but maybe most disheartening is the fact Powers and Docter are unable to find a more compelling way for Joe's journey from steadfast musician to the realization that passions are good until they turn into obsessions to deliver him the epiphany of the true meaning of life.
We always hear in phrases and sayings that it’s the body that has a soul, but there was a quote I recently read that really struck me in terms of shifting my perspective on things. “Never tell a child they have a soul. Teach them, you are a soul; you have a body." The quote, attributed to Scottish minister George MacDonald, genuinely re-frames the order of things; reinforcing that the body is but the temporary clothing of the soul therefore begging questions of how much one is really tethered to the other. One obviously needs the other in order to exist as a physical being, but what is it that actually makes us who we are? Furthermore, “Soul” doesn't completely relegate itself to the "soul world," but is in fact evenly split between the "You Seminar" and Earth in a choice that will not only add a layer of difficulty to discerning what is possible and what has been imagined when it comes to inquiring minds, but enlightens further this idea of dependency. Giving equal credence to how much the soul determines our personality, principles, and general moral sense (let's not even get into the nature vs. nurture discussions this movie might spurn) whereas our body - including our brain - allows one to learn and experience things such as touching, feeling, and tasting illustrates the value in the collaboration, but also emphasizes the idea there is no true existence of one without the other. The soul is the heart of our essence, but the experience wouldn't be complete without our shell. The sheer ambition of Disney and Pixar to explore the gap so passionately between the transient and the eternal makes “Soul” impressive even if the execution doesn't quite measure up to its aspirations. Said ambition also almost excuses the fact Pixar is hardly trying to hide the fact they don't really make movies for kids anymore. While understanding there is nothing more universal than death and that there might be some benefit to having the most creative studio on the planet flesh out the possibilities of what might exist beyond our tangible yet ephemeral realm there's also the very real consequences of a child interpreting the events of the film to mean (Spoiler Alert!!) that someone could return after they die which would likely prove scarring for a mind just beginning to grasp the idea and implications of death. On the other side of the coin, “Soul” could just as likely offer a child more comfort and assurance about the future as opposed to the scary certainty of death. I don't want to harp on the idea the content of the film might be more overwhelming for its "target" audience than anything else - and certainly don't mean to imply this makes it a bad movie - as it could just as easily be seen as challenging or something that will go over the heads of younger viewers to the point all they understand is that the bright colors, luscious animation, and quippy characters are entertaining. As an aside, the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score is a real stand-out and maybe the most effective aspect in realizing the before and after lives. Mostly though, I just hope families who sit down to watch “Soul” on Disney+ after opening their presents on Christmas morning know what they're walking into and that parents know their children well enough to know the kinds of conversations they're going to have afterward.
"Soul" is streaming on Disney+.