With Soul—released straight to Disney Plus on Christmas Day, Pixar grows more mature and sophisticated, but never loses the heart. Co-directed by Pete Docter (Inside Out) and playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), this jazzy soul-seeking odyssey between New York and the hypothetical astral field is like an adult-oriented drama version of Docter’s 2015 work. That being said, kid-friendly feature works on surface level; but, underneath, there’s a more philosophical and subliminal layers that only appeal for adult viewers grasping the meaning between life, death, and ideas beyond those distinctions.
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A middle-aged high school music teacher, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), becomes Pixar’s first Black protagonist in Soul. For him, music is the mind and jazz is the heart, while New York is the body that houses them all. He thought he has it all—the soul and the spark to live music as his life to the fullest. As a struggling musician, he’s been compromising for his life much to the chagrin of his mother and closest relatives. He’s been dreaming to be a jazz musician like his father; but, occasional gigs haven’t been able to sustain him financially. When life suddenly becomes lenient to him—handing him dilemmatic options to be committed as a full-time teacher or to have the one shot to play in a professional band with Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the agitated Joe slips and falls then heads en route to the movie’s much-imaginative afterlife.
As in Inside Out, Soul benefits from Pixar’s ethereal world-building, mapping out existential concepts and creating corresponding hypothetical cosmic locations with delicate characters. Desperate to catch the once-in-a-lifetime chance, a celestial version of Joe escapes the road to The Great Beyond, a.k.a. the afterlife, only to find himself stumbles to its exact opposite, The Great Before, where the concept of life is created and “trained.” In there, some 2D conceptual figures called ‘Jerry’ look after souls, give them characters, and encourage them to join You Seminar to find their own “spark”, some sort of passion that will grant them the Earth Pass before they can leap into Earth and become a living figure. Joe encounters a rebellious soul labeled ’22’ (voiced by Tina Fey) who has deliberately missed gazillion chances of living a life. Together, they devise a plan to override the bureaucracy and go on with their goals—staying on the astral field for 22 and return to Earth for Joe.
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Joe’s soul-seeking experience in the metaphysical and physical world is transcendental and personal at the same time. As Joe and 22 navigate the hypothetical fields including the field of lost souls, it’s hard not to admire Pixar’s exquisitely and imaginatively designed work with thoughtful sets of rule and automatism. However, Soul works way better when navigating around Joe’s daily life and his relations with his Black community. The portrayal of the Black neighborhood is affectionate and important; the barbershop scene, for instance, is reflective and magical in capturing the dynamic life within Black culture. Joe’s infatuation towards jazz is admirable and the movie’s respectful approach to observe it as an art and cultural signifier of Black community is warmhearted. There’s one moment when Joe plays jazzy improv with his piano and his soul manifests, transcends time and space, and lightens up everyone around him. It’s a simple scene but it’s breathtaking nevertheless.
After transcendental odyssey that goes beyond the concept of life and death, the final act of Soul is a little too compromising, but not in the level that it negates the whole built up. The compromise, however, is meant to embrace the heartwarming and optimistic perspective that Pixar attempts to exude. The end-result eventually leads to a heart rending moment, that never completely slips into emotional melodrama, with a hint of brighter days ahead. The wildly imaginative ideas might not be manifesting in a wholesome act, but, after all, Soul is an exquisite slice-of-life tale that piercing the existential field for a much-needed soul-seeking drama. With delicate jazz courtesy of Jon Batiste that blends seamlessly with playful scoring by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the journey in the afterlife and in the present-day New York feels as ethereal as it is gorgeous.