Disney/Pixar may have just made their first animated feature exclusively for adults. It’s hard to imagine a film about existentialism, purgatory, reincarnation, a midlife crisis, and the niche world of jazz appealing to 8-year-olds. Nonetheless, SOUL should be quite appealing to adults as it is a twisty, clever story about all those ideas blended into one of the year’s better feel-good movies. And after the 2020 we’ve all had, such a movie couldn’t be more of a present to open on Christmas Day.
The protagonist of SOUL is a middle-aged African-American named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx). He’s a junior high band teacher living in New York City, but he pines to use his piano-playing talents as a jazz musician. One day, he gets an opportunity to audition for famed jazz singer and saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). He aces the audition and is invited to play that evening at the city night club where she’s performing. Unfortunately, he’s too excited about the opportunity that he’s not watching where he is going and carelessly steps into the street and down an open manhole.
Finding himself waiting in “The Great Before,” essentially purgatory, his soul is now a cute little blob of a ghost-like creature. He starts kvetching to various limbo handlers who look like Picasso line drawings about dying before his time. His protests fall on deaf ears save for another cute blob who doesn’t like her lot either. Known simply as 22, her number in line, and voiced by the tart-tongued Tina Fey, she helps Joe figure out a way to return to Earth and get both of them a second chance.
Once there, all sorts of shenanigans and mishaps ensue, starting with 22’s personality ending up in Joe’s body, and his personality occupying that of a plumpish cat. (The cat is arguably the studio’s only nod to the kid audience.) From there, they try to figure out how to align their proper personalities, scheme to get Joe his chance at the big time, and unwittingly discover more about the real world and the heavenly ones than they ever imagined. 22 even discovers earth’s simple pleasures like the taste of lollipops and the joy of hugging.
Along the way, the two bicker like a cranky sitcom couple, managing to turn all sorts of heady topics into snappy comic banter. Amongst their topics? Reincarnation, Carl Jung, and existentialism. Those riffs will amuse the learned adult watching but undoubtedly confound any kiddie wanting a movie more akin to THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS.
Helmed by Pete Docter, and written by the director, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers, SOUL is one of Disney/Pixar’s best efforts in years. It’s full of sublime attributes that eclipse many life-actioners this year. The score by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste is the year’s best, both playful and ethereal, as is the incredibly detailed production design capturing an idealized Big Apple and a Tron-like great beyond. The vocal gymnastics by Foxx and Fey are a hoot and makes one pine for them to do a live-action rom-com together. The film also finds terrific roles for Graham Norton, Phylicia Rashad, and Questlove to voice. (Norton should do more of it. His vocals are so distinctive and endearing.)
The movie’s message about living life one day at a time is a safe and expected one, but damn if the filmmakers don’t know how to deliver such messages for a maximum lump in the throat anyway. It seems especially effective given this year where so much of what we took for granted was ruthlessly snatched away from us by the pandemic.
Disney/Pixar has honed its distinctive cartoonish look, but SOUL might have benefited from trying a different visual style for this more adult effort. Something with a little less of the typical CGI gleam to it would have helped distinguish the character design from most of the other entries in their storied history. There are so many big grown-up subjects at play in SOUL that to render it in such a typical fashion can’t help but hinder some of the maturity in the writing. Granted, it all looks exquisite, particularly in how the cityscape is brought to life, but the film’s look could’ve ventured farther afield.
Nonetheless, the animation’s action and set-pieces have a charmingly, loosy-goosy feel to them, echoing the jazz music in the protagonist’s world and often feeling as spontaneous as an ad-libbed solo. It’s a clever and thought-provoking film, and a likely hit when it premieres on Disney + this Christmas Day. Parents should be prepared, however, for a lot of questions from their young ones afterward. No doubt they’ll find the purgatory scenes, the reincarnation themes, and all that jazz a little hard to wrap their heads around. Or maybe they’ll just let it slide and instead go on and on about the hilariously adorable cat.