REVIEW: ‘Soul’ is an education for those starting life (and those in the middle of it)

(Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

More than mainstreaming 3D animation, or ushering in the period of kid movies that adults can love or cry over, it could be that the greatest result of Pixar’s success is that it has allowed Pixar’s own staple of creators to move into loftier, often stranger, and much more nuanced projects more akin to the works of Hayao Miyazaki than those Disney produced before acquiring the studio. Prior to the release of Toy Story, the debut feature of both Pixar and writer Pete Docter, it would have been impossible to imagine a major American animation studio supporting concepts as strange as opening as a kid’s film with 20 minutes of near silence on a deserted planet overrun with garbage, beginning another with one of the two lead characters growing old enough to watch his wife die, following sentient emotions through a lesson in child psychology, or, in the case of Pixar and Docter’s latest, building child-friendly entertainment around a mid-life crisis. Yet that’s exactly what Soul does. And it does so with the passion of a trombone player pouring their full heart into a solo that a dozen people will hear for two minutes, and then for the rest of their lives.

Soul opens with a wonderfully mundane sequence following Joe Gardner through what for many of us will be a frighteningly familiar day. Now middle-aged, we see the struggles of an aspiring jazz musician as he contemplates the horror of a day job as well as the love of music that keeps him waking up in the morning. Then, right when we’re invested in Joe’s world, ready to take in what Soul has to tell us about balancing practicality with passion, we’re reminded that the deadliest period in all of cinema is the first ten minutes of a Pixar movie. Maybe it’s just me, but the biggest letdown in the entire film is that we don’t get to stay in Joe’s world as he decides whether to continue his as-yet fruitless pursuit of life as a musician or settle for the stable but less exciting position of music teacher (as I said, for some of us, this film will be frighteningly familiar), yet even in this we can’t be too critical because what follows, while radically different from the previous tone, is just as poignant and delightful as anything in the studio’s history.

The most beautiful animation in ‘Soul’ is when it breaks from Pixar’s traditional look. (Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Putting aside that fact that Pixar has already dealt with the afterlife, and the afterlife of a musician no less, in 2017’s brilliant Coco (had I seen it in time, it would have been in my Top 10 of that year), Soul is yet another addition to the studio’s ever-growing array of fictional worlds. In this life outside of life, souls of both departed and unborn people exist as unformed cloud-like marshmallows of human essence ushered about by the sum total of existence represented as Picasso-esque counselors all calling themselves Jerry. It gets weird, yet Docter and the film itself are so deft that never once do the abstract concepts become overwhelming. Even as Soul bounces from the concept of a pre-life, to finding one’s purpose, to what it means to be great, to emptiness, failure, gratitude, loss, passion, and back again, it always remains easy to follow. In the same way that syncopation, improvisation, and embellishment may complicate a jazz progression, Soul holds a steady bassline to keep us grounded.

With all its profundity, ‘Soul’ still brings the silly.
Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Remaining true to its jazz inspiration, Soul follows a sort of free-flowing structure, moving through motifs, riffs, and tangents as freely as it does humor and humanity. If anything, it could be argued that Soul touches on so many topics that it isn’t allowed to thoroughly examine any one of them, but it’s easier to argue that it isn’t the responsibility of a child-friendly film to offer profound insights on the experience of finding, questioning, losing, and redefining one’s supposed purpose in life. Soul‘s only responsibility, its own purpose, is to be entertaining, and it does this through Pixar’s patented blend of beautiful visuals, sight gags, cut-away jokes, and just enough esoteric references (including ironic statements from Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, and Abraham Lincoln, and a pirate ship playing Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on repeat) to make the kids wonder why the adults are laughing.

As is also typical of Pixar, there’s perfect emotional delivery and comic timing throughout the entire cast. Of course Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are delightful as Joe and 22, but it’s wonderful to hear supporting performances from Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Daveed Diggs, and even ?uestlove from the legendary Roots crew. However, for me the biggest laughs in the entire film came from remembering that a kid-friendly Pixar movie was scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and from a nearly whispered complaint that “Fingers are hard to draw.” As someone who spent years trying to create comic books this single line felt as true as anything else, and hearing it in an animated film that often focuses on the main character’s limber pianist’s fingers makes this the exact kind of obscure yet hilarious joke that the studio is famous for. Further, it must be appreciated that Pixar chooses as its hero a middle-aged African American man, complete with his own flaws and fortes, rather than default to a white guy. Anyone who has ever believed they are or were destined for more, or has ever seen opportunities pass them by, can relate to Joe, regardless of his particular passion or appearance. The fact that such an entertaining film offers any insight at all, especially on a topic as antithetical to its target audience as mid-life crisis, is more bonus than requirement. Although there may be some awkward conversations awaiting when the kids wonder why mommy and daddy are crying as Joe plays his piano.

‘Soul’ reminds us that the mundane can be wonderful.
Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Again, like jazz, rather than settling into any single structure or message, Soul follows a more free-flowing arrangement of issues forming a motif that even though we may not have lived to become the great jazz musicians or pioneering veterinarians we aspired to be, life is still a beautiful thing. For Joe, and for the adults he represents, the world is a mundane at times painful place that we more often lament than enjoy. Yet for 22, and for children she represents, it’s a place filled with wonders yet to be discovered. We, meaning the middle-aged or near middle-aged among us, often forget that subways, barbershops (at least before the pandemic), and pizza are amazing. They’re opportunities to interact with our world, our neighbors, and our senses in ways that we seldom appreciate. Soul is the kind of film you show children when they’re young enough that they want to hang from subway handles and enjoy the updraft of a vent in the sidewalk. When their eyes still widen at the first notes of a dusty record or the first bite of their new favorite food. When they still see the opportunity of play in everyday things like fallen leaves or their own two legs. It’s an education for those just beginning life. And it’s a refresher for those of us who are in the middle of it.

We were born to play. So let’s play.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.