Soul–Disney/Pixar ponder meaning of life in latest animated movie

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s the latest in what has become a packed 12 months of studios releasing animated movies.  And it carries a common theme for a venue families once could prop their kids up in front of for easy content to enjoy.  The subject again is death and dying, and more to the point, what happens to you after you die,  It’s the Disney-Pixar movie Soul, a big-budget movie that at first blush is about a musician and his love for jazz.  Starring the voices of Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx and the versatile Tina Fey, the animation is the best of merging digital animation with stunning real-world imagery.  The musician theme is great, and directors Pete Docter and Kent Powers do their best to juggle humor and humanity’s most age-old questions: Who am I? Why am I here?  And what’s next?  This Disney+ offers some impressive visuals and ideas, but it also might be more for the older tier of kids and audiences ready for the thoughtful themes.

Joe is a teacher–a great music teacher–who inspires his students.  He loves jazz, and his mastery of the piano allows him to go beyond good to great, and beyond that to “the zone.”  Foxx, who earned his Oscar for playing one of the jazz greats, Ray Charles, plays the nicely rendered New York teacher who is about to achieve a life-long dream of jamming with a queen of jazz voiced by Angela Bassett, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing another music legend, Tina Turner.  Together they make the opening act of Soul practically perfect.  Then Foxx’s Joe takes that wrong turn, and the story becomes something very different.  Other recognizable voice actors include Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, and Wes Studi.

For the older set, it’s a beautiful vision reminding us life has value and should be meaningful, by exploring the concept of the soul before, during, and after death.  On his way to his big break, Joe dies in an accident, but won’t accept it.  Who would?  Turns out we line up after death and walk forward blankly to get snuffed out like a bug in an insect zapper creepily like the horrific “carousel” in Logan’s Run.  In a twist on Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, Joe finds himself trying to fight his way back into his body on Earth.  In a case of mistaken identity, he winds up as a soul mentor to an unborn soul called 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who resists making her way to life, clinging instead to existence in the Great Before. Joe and 22 finally make it back to Earth, but there’s one tiny snafu: instead of getting his own body back, Joe becomes a stray cat, and 22 becomes Joe.  Think classic body-swaps like the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin switch-up in All of Me, Chevy Chase returns to Earth as Benji in Oh, Heavenly Dog! and even the original Freaky Friday/ Freaky, and Innerspace.  Fey and Foxx have great chemistry, and it’s their mentor-student relationship that brings the story and its themes to life.

Unless you live for non-stop barrage of movies based in New York City, you may find the real-world environment choice lacking in vision.  Lots of cities are known for jazz and would have made a more clever setting instead of illustrating yet another NYC film.  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse is the gold standard for depicting the big city, and Soul has similar local color and detail, but is mainly a visual repeat of that idea.  The otherworld setting uses a cute, but far more simplistic, animation style, including characters that are not much more than stick figures and blobs as the individual souls (also cute).  Once the plot becomes recognizable, the story reveals itself predictably, although it leaves open questions with no post-credits scene to answer them.

Who is the audience for the movie?  It’s difficult to say.  Adults may appreciate the first act component of Joe and his passion.  For a subset of the younger viewers the movie might have a narrow niche–a kid too young to understand the horror of the death of the soul as depicted in Soul may just find it a bunch of silly laughing balls, but a thinking kid may have more questions post-viewing for Mom and Dad.  The set-up with Joe as teacher telegraphs the theme of inspiration–his trombone student echoed the real world magic band teachers bring to their students.

Pixar’s technical prowess continues.  The actors coupled with the artists create some interesting characters and beautiful sets.  Dorothea–the star jazz musician–plays a saxophone you’d swear was real, down to the pistons and metallic sheen.

Despite the color, sound, and spectacle, the tone and plot are philosophical and occasionally somber.  A bit of brilliant animation at times and a story that may not be for every audience, Soul is streaming now on Disney+.

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