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Pixar’s Soul Movie Review: Just The Gift You Wanted This Christmas

Pixar's Soul Poster

Pixar proved they were not afraid to go high-concept when they took on the emotions of an 11-year-old girl in Inside Out. Now they are going even deeper, looking at the soul itself in Soul.

The film opens with Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) teaching middle school band to a mostly tone-deaf group of students. When one student gets “in the zone” while playing, the other students laugh. This inspires Joe to tell them about his own introduction to jazz and the moment he knew he was born to be a musician. Joe never had dreams of being a teacher, he knows his purpose is to play on the stage. When offered a permanent teaching position, Joe finds himself at a crossroads. His mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) encourages him to take the secure path, having lived through the financial ups and downs of being married to Joe’s musician father.

The opportunity of a lifetime comes when former student Curley (Questlove) offers Joe the chance to audition for Dorthea Williams (Angela Bassett). An ecstatic Joe lands the gig. Unfortunately, a fall down a manhole shortly thereafter lands him on an escalator heading into “The Great Beyond.” Not ready to give up on his dream, Joe escapes. He lands in “The Great Before,” the place where new souls develop their personalities before coming to Earth. Under an assumed identity, Joe becomes the mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has refused to “find their spark” and make the trip down to Earth. Thus begins Joe’s journey to help 22 discover what is so great about living and find his own way back to Earth in time for his dream gig.

Joe plays the piano in this scene from Pixar's Soul.

My first thought as the movie ended was how are little kids going to feel about this? I loved Soul, but I figured the movie might be a little too existential for the very young. I asked a friend who was reviewing the movie with her little girls for feedback. They confirmed my theory. The 9-year-old loved it, the 7-year-old was a little bored. She thought the movie was all about Joe getting back to Earth to play in his show with Dorthea Williams and decided the whole thing was too predictable. Sure, Joe’s motivation is the gig, but the movie’s purpose is the journey and the discovery of, to quote one of the trailers, “what makes you…YOU?” Very young kids will probably find some of the gags funny, like a soul’s inability to eat pizza. (It shoots right out of the “body!”) The deeper, more philosophical themes will probably fly right over their heads. There might be enough humor and story to pull them through, but just in case, be prepared for the littlest viewers to lose interest.

22 and Joe explore pizza in these scene from Pixar's Soul.

Those of you old enough to be self-reflective? Get ready. Soul goes far deeper than you would expect an animated feature to travel. The film explores the aforementioned being “in the zone,” but also the concept of “lost souls.” It turns out being “in the zone” and being “lost” are a little closer than you might think. Soul talks about finding your spark, your purpose, your reason for living, and more. One might expect with such a heavy emphasis on the metaphysical that things could start touching on religion. The film, instead, created a world where a person’s own belief system could comfortably assimilate.

A “first look” criticism of Soul was the possibility of yet another Black character potentially spending most of their time in the film as something other than themself. In Princess and the Frog we had Disney’s first Black princess appear as a frog for the majority of the film. In Soul we have Pixar’s first Black leading character appearing as a small blue version of himself. I do not want to get into spoiler territory, but I did want to affirm that this is not another Princess and the Frog situation.

A gentle sweetness exists at the heart of Soul. It feels like a warm hug, or a nice bowl of soup, or whatever comforting analogy fits you personally. Sure, you should try to review a movie dispassionately. In reality, everyone has their own baggage that seeps into whatever they do. In my case, I was having a bad day, part of a bad week, which–let’s face it–was part of a bad year. I sat down to watch Soul and I just felt better. It did make me tear up, but I did not sob like I have done watching so many Pixar films in the past. I think one could argue that in 2020, movies that make you sob are a little unnecessary. Once you open your gifts from Santa and FaceTime your family and friends, I cannot think of a better way to spend your Christmas day than settling in to watch Soul.

You can stream Soul on Disney+ beginning on December 25, 2020.

About Pixar’s Soul

PG (Some Language|Thematic Elements)
Runtime: 1h 40m

What is it that makes you…YOU? This Christmas only on Disney+, Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new feature film “Soul” introduces Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) – a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions. Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”), co-directed by Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”) and produced by Academy Award nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a. (Pixar short “Lou”), Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” is streaming only on Disney+ beginning December 25.

As The Bunny Hops®