When we learned Pete Docter was doing Soul, a film that would explore concepts of the afterlife, I think flashes of his modern classic Inside Out ran through our brains. For good reasons, of course; Docter’s films, which include Up and Monsters, Inc., are considered among the studio’s best and richest emotionally. But Soul isn’t quite on the level of those films, and certainly doesn’t have the complexity of Inside Out. While certainly entertaining and inclusive with Pixar’s first African-American protagonist, there’s so much straining to be safe and not tackle anything too challenging that it comes across as a little formulaic.
It should be said, however, that the Pixar formula is impeccable, so it’s not like Soul is one of the rare misfires. Jamie Foxx voices Joe, a middle-aged music teacher who has never achieved his dream of being a full-time jazz pianist. This isn’t a guy with aspirations of being a superstar (jazz music doesn’t really lend itself to that, anyway), he just wants to do what he loves. When his big break finally comes, and by big break it’s playing for a local jazz club, Joe is through the roof…then he’s under the ground. A freak accident takes it all away in the blink of an eye.
Soul is about two souls going in opposite directions. Joe, whose soul has been carried to the afterlife but doesn’t want to go, depicted hilariously by a slow escalator crawl into “the light”. And then there’s 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul that has yet to even be given a human body and is already tired and fearful of the world.
There’s quite a bit of explaining that goes into Soul, which stalls the narrative momentum early on. Joe manages to break free from The Great Beyond, only to stumble into The Great Before, or what is Pixar’s version of pre-existence. It’s here that souls are created, counseled (by counselors all named Jerry) in their pre-set emotions, then let loose to literally leap into the bodies of children. But 22 has already seen enough. She doesn’t want to be given a body, and has given fits to any counselor that has tried.
The visual interpretation of the afterlife is certainly unique, with Docter giving it all of the cold personality of an Amazon warehouse, only one where souls are the product being packaged up and shipped. That feeling fits with the notion that who we are is already predetermined, but clashes with the message Docter and his co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers are trying to make for the duration of the film, which is that we are all a product of our environments, our friends, and our families. It is up to us to find that thing which makes us love life, but if that has already been decided for us, what’s the point?
Because the metaphysical aspects of Soul are a bit jumbled, the film actually finds its footing when back on Earth. To be honest, I groaned initially when the story went this route because I was hoping to see Docter hit an Inside Out-like groove in The Great Before. Instead, he finds it in the vivid exploration of jazz and what it means to Joe, seen through stunning realizations of the New York City music scene, all backed by wonderful original music by Jon Baptiste. We also see the part Joe’s family and friends play. While this is all incongruent with Soul‘s theme, it’s nevertheless beautifully captured, and when did you ever think you’d see a black barber shop play a prominent part in a Pixar movie? Kemp Powers, an African-American screenwriter and playwright (his play One Night in Miami is no a movie by Regina King), helped create Joe’s community of mostly-black characters and it feels alive and authentic. Angela Bassett voices the Ma Rainey-esque jazz singer Dorothea Williams, leader of the band Joe hopes to be part of. With attitude she dispenses wisdom, and some tough love, that comes to be pivotal even if Joe doesn’t think so at first.
Given slightly more attention Joe’s attempts to help 22 find her “spark” on Earth. If the story of 40-something Joe is mostly geared towards adults (kids aren’t going to understand his midlife crisis), then 22’s is for the kiddies and mostly revolves around childish things, like a love of pizza. It’s not especially deep, and certainly not as interesting or philosophical as Joe’s journey, but helps Soul to stay middle-of-the-road as possible. It doesn’t reach for, and certainly doesn’t attain, the emotional heights of Docter’s previous films, but a great soundtrack, plenty of heart, and a stunning depiction of a life built on music, make Soul a journey that is worth undertaking.