Much is rightly being made about Soul being the first Pixar movie with a Black man as the main character. I don’t want to undersell this, but what I took away from this film is how concerned it is with grown-up things. In fact, Soul is weakest precisely when it’s trying to play to the kids in the audience. For this reason, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this movie when it comes out on Disney+ this Christmas, but I can say that when it works, it’s amazing stuff.
Our protagonist is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a single, middle-aged New Yorker who teaches middle-school band on a temporary basis until he receives an offer for permanent employment. His family wants him to take the job and the steady paycheck, health insurance, and pension plan that come with it, but he still harbors dreams of being a jazz pianist, and his big break seems to finally arrive when he lands a gig backing up a star saxophonist (voiced by Angela Bassett). It’s at this point that he falls down a manhole and his bluish-green soul separates from his body, trapping him in a limbo state with access to both the afterlife and the beforelife. With too much going for him, he resolves to get back into his body to show the world what he can do at the keyboard.
To do this, he needs the help of Soul 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a truculent unborn consciousness whose refusal to live life has driven such mentors as Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa to disgust. When the beforelife’s counselors mistake Joe for a Nobel Prize-winning child psychologist and appoint him as 22’s newest mentor, it starts this character relationship on a dodgy note that it never quite seems to recover from. Joe’s futile attempts to make 22 want to live don’t have the comic zing that we’ve seen from previous Pixar films. Eventually, Joe’s attempt to return to Earth results in 22 being stuck in his body, and the filmmakers seem to find more humor than we do in Tina Fey’s voice coming from a Black man’s mouth. (Brave did this body switch, too, and I wasn’t a fan of it then.) Co-director and co-writer Pete Docter is drawing from the same well that he did in his 2015 film Inside Out, and his imagining of the next world doesn’t have the same magic as that one. Maybe this is simply a function of me seeing the film on a small screen, but then, that’s how you’ll be seeing it, too.
The film’s music outdoes the visuals. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do the incidental stuff, but Stay Human frontman Jon Batiste composes Joe’s jazz solos, and his colorful, crystalline pianism is more than enough to convince us that Joe is a brilliant musician who hasn’t had his shot yet. (It’s also the reason why this movie has a better handle on contemporary jazz than La La Land did.) The music is part of the film’s conversation about how people relate to their work, and this part feels like it comes from Docter’s co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers, the African-American playwright whose One Night in Miami is being adapted into another film. One of the best scenes here comes during Joe’s trip to a barbershop, when 22 makes him ask his regular barber (voiced by Donnell Rawlings) about his life and learns that styling hair is not the career that this man envisioned for himself, but he’s still happy with it.
In the end, Soul says that however rewarding or urgently necessary our jobs might be, they’re not the reason why we’re here. It’s life-giving to find something that we’re indisputably good at (and even better when that thing pays us), and yet life is what happens when a conversation results in making a friend or when we stop to watch a maple seedling helicopter its way into our hands. Maybe Synchronic hit this theme more effectively, but it’s still undeniably powerful when Joe goes back to his life and ponders what his experiences have made him into. The miracle of human existence and the sublime infinitude of the universe is here glimpsed through the eyes of a Black man. That stuff matters.
Voices by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. Written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers. Rated PG.