What is “soul”? Is it that feeling you get when you tap into the flow between emotion and expression, the spiritual and the physical? Is it something personal percolating within you, waiting to be unleashed? Is it the essence of humanity in a nutshell? Defining the concept is like aiming at a constantly skittering target. You sense it when you sense it. I know you’ve got soul.
No questions necessary, however, when it comes to understanding what Soul is — all you need to hear is the phrase “the new movie from Pixar.” (Or for that matter, where you can see it: on Disney+, starting Christmas Day.) It’s an animated movie, located right at the crossroads of absurdity and profundity, and likely to tickle funny bones as well as lubricate tear ducts. It will feature celebrity voices, be filled with both pop-culture parodies and high-art references, and present a depth and sophistication far above the usual family-friendly fare. A certain amount of quality is a given. (Unless it involves nothing but anthropomorphic cars. Then all bets are off.) And while Pete Docter’s follow-up to Inside Out is nowhere near that particular Pixar highpoint’s resonance and ingenuity, it does make for an odd fraternal twin to his 2015 teen-angst magnum opus. Whereas that candy-colored trip through an adolescent girl’s cerebral cortex concentrated on the brain, Soul naturally focuses on pinpointing the anima. And that existential query posed up top is one of many deep thoughts that are very much on the movie’s mind. Why are we here? What’s your spark? What makes your life worth living?
For Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the answer is: music. Ever since his dad took him downtown to see a performance at the Half Note when he was a boy, all he’s ever wanted to do is to become the next Duke Ellington. Except the now middle-aged Average Joe is stuck teaching standards to mostly disinterested middle-school kids. (The name of the composition his band class is currently butchering: “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”) He has the chance to turn this part-time gig into his full-time job, which means stability, a steady paycheck and a dream of a Monk-ish life permanently deferred. Then a call from an old pupil, a drummer (Questlove, because of course!), presents an opportunity. The pianist for the legendary Dorothea Williams Quartet has dropped out at the last second. Would Joe wanna throw his fedora in the ring to replace him?
Joe passes both the muster of the skeptical, take-no-shit bandleader (Angela Bassett) and the audition. He’s so ecstatic about his big break that he’s oblivious to the open manhole he falls in, which is where Soul ‘s narrative proper sputters to life. Or rather, into the void: a cosmic conveyor belt carries a small, blobbish figure with glasses and a porkpie-shaped noggin — I Am Joe’s Lifeforce — toward the Great Beyond. He isn’t ready to go into the light, jumps off the heavenly treadmill and soon finds himself in “the Great Before.” Imagine if Fischer-Price designed a pastel purgatory. This is where souls-to-be reside before they fly down to earth, lorded over by walking, talking one-dimensional Picasso sketches all named Jerry. According to those Cubist bureaucrats, the little blue soul-toddlers need mentorship first. They need likes, dislikes, passions, characteristics. They must form a nature-not-nurture personality (“I’m an agreeable skeptic who’s cautious yet flamboyant!”) before they can enter their corporeal phase. Our fugitive from death hatches an escape plan: steal an identity, help a newbie, swipe their “earth pass” and get back to his body before the gig. Easy-peasy, until No. 22 enter the picture.
That’s the Little Soul Who Wouldn’t, a tenacious pain of a shmoo who’s stymied the efforts of past mentors such as Abraham Lincoln and Copernicus, once made Mother Theresa cry and, as voiced by Tina Fey, No. 22 is blessed with a maximum girlboss puckishness that singlehandedly sells the character. No. 22 doesn’t want to discover her purpose for existing. She does not even want to be alive. Joe has to inspire her or perish before he can show the world he’s more than the guy he sees in this limbo’s flashback-accomplishments hallway, i.e. someone who seems to be killing time while waiting for an already-in-progress life to start.
Without venturing too deep into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say they do both end up together on the third rock from the sun, just not how they imagined. Fans of a certain strain of popular ’80s comedies (notably one featuring a famous stand-up, a pioneer of one-woman shows and a magic bowl) are likely to find themselves in pleasantly familiar territory. The fact that Soul features an African-American lead, was cowritten and codirected by the playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami…) and weaves in aspects of middle-class African-American culture while treating race as a matter of fact — rather than a back-patting novelty, a look-ma-I’m-woke box to be ticked or Hollywoodized exotica — feels quietly revolutionary. So does the rainbow coalition of supporting voices here, which includes Sonia Braga, Rachel House, Wes Studi and Richard Aayode. You’re constantly reminded that no one in the animation game can marshal a mix-and-match of creative talent and a Stradivarius-maestro level of heartstring plucking with such accessibility and verve.
Which is why Soul soars above its two-dimensional ‘toon peers, even if sort of pales in comparison to Pixar’s previous milestones. It doesn’t have the eye-popping wow of Coco (2017), another netherworld jaunt that turned a Dia de los Muertos visual palette into something both culturally specific and universal, though there are a number of moments where you can feel the animators’ imagination kick into fourth gear, notably via a psychedelic galleon used by “Mystics Without Borders” and the be-bop aurora borealis that appears when Joe is lost in his own playing, courtesy of Jon Batiste’s vigorous jazz compositions. The rubber-limbed human characters, who come in caricaturish shapes ranging from pear to stringbean, get more of a chance to strut and fret (and wobble and flop and shudder and leap) upon the stage once things switch from Great Before to terra firma, and it’s the slice of life stuff that works even better than the admittedly deft slapstick bits. For that matter, a sequence in a barbershop and a brief heart to heart in the tailor shop Joe’s mom (Phylicia Rashad) do more heavy emotional lifting than the more obvious tearjerking climax(es) as the clock ticks down. Per most Pixar joints, a box of Kleenex is a must-have accessory, though New Yorkers may find themselves welling up more at the sight of our photorealistic city with jazz clubs, used bookstores and bustling street life, rendered in all its autumnal late-afternoon glory, more than anything else.
Still, there’s a tendency for its story of midlife crises and posthumous second chances to tonally devolve into a self-help guide — a Zen and the Art of Emotional-Cycle Maintenance 101 primer that gets a little touchy-feely about following your bliss by the end. (Though is it preferable to, say, going full Ayn Rand a la The Incredibles? Yes.) For all of the ways Pixar has helped evolve kids-movie parables as a genre and animation as an art form, it’s still prone to a pop-psychology default mode that can border on platitude pimping — an accusation that won’t necessarily be discounted after dinging Joe for not fulfilling his potential, or seeing the forest for the trees, or acknowledging that the mere notion of a forest full of trees is a joyous miracle unto itself.
There are many elaborate lessons on life and how to live it in Soul, though its best may ironically be its simplest: Look. Listen. Learn. Enjoy. You may not turn the film off with an answer to what a soul is. But you may find yourself wondering if you’re forgetting to occasionally connect with your own.