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Family Movie Review: Soul (PG)

Pixar’s ‘Soul’ is beautifully abstract visually, but perhaps too impenetrable for young viewers.

Kernel Rating: 3 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG      Length: 100 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 10+. The latest from Pixar continues a recent theme from the animation studio, and explores concepts related to life, death, and purpose. The film’s protagonist falls down a manhole and nearly passes away, sending his spirit into another realm; he runs away rather than accept his death and meets other characters who serve as guides for new souls and for people who have passed. The character is shown in a hospital bed back on Earth, and when he leaves the hospital, wanders around New York City looking disheveled and disoriented. Some conversations about the purpose of life and disappointing yourself or your family; some jokes about a character having gained weight; characters insult each other; one character is constantly belittled or put down by others who are meant to be mentors.

By Roxana Hadadi

For the past five or so years, Pixar’s films have focused on the concept of death. It’s heady stuff for young viewers, but between “Inside Out,” “The Good Dinosaur,” “Finding Dory,” “Coco,” “Toy Story 4,” and “Onward,” Pixar has made a pattern out of films that consider the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, or the loss of one’s own purpose. That trend continues with “Soul,” the first Pixar film to center on a Black character. The animation is beautiful and strange, and the movie’s experimentations with our understanding of souls and the afterlife are thoughtful. But there is something slightly unfulfilling about “Soul” and how its characters are imagined that might make this film more admirable than it is likable.

“Soul” focuses on Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a music teacher by day and jazz musician by night; after years of going to auditions and playing gigs, he’s still certain that he’ll one day hit his big break. His day job, trying to encourage students who have either forgotten their instruments, or goof off in his class, or are playing on their phones instead of playing music, is steady employment, but he doesn’t believe it’s his life’s purpose. That is actually playing music, and when he plays the piano, it’s like he gets lost in the sound—floating away into another plane of existence far from the day-to-day banality of his real life. So when Joe gets a gig playing with renowned saxophonist Dorothea (Angela Bassett), he thinks he’s finally made it—until he falls through an open manhole.

After his accident, Joe is caught in a kind of limbo. While his body is in a coma, his consciousness—and how we see him—shrinks into a smaller, teardrop-shaped, glowing blue figure, decorated with his customary hat, and is transported to another plane of existence. But instead of running up a ramp of glowing light (heavily suggested here to be a kind of heaven) into the Great Beyond, Joe runs away from it and ends up in another location, the Great Before, where he sees how souls are produced and then sent down to Earth. As he tries to hide from the accountant Terry (Rachel House), a soul counter who realizes that he did not travel into the Great Beyond as he was expected to, Joe ends up paired with the soul 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who has languished for centuries in the Great Before.

22 is not interested in ever traveling to Earth and living because she’s never found her purpose, and her cynicism is in total contrast to Joe, who is desperate to find a way back to his body so he can play that special gig with the Dorothea Williams Quartet. And when they end up on Earth together, neither of them gets exactly what they want: 22 ends up in Joe’s body while he ends up in the body of a cat. Will finally experiencing Earth change 22’s mind about living? How will Joe end up back in his own body? Or, will 22 refuse to leave, trapping Joe in the cat forever? There are various existential questions “Soul” pursues as a result of this arrangement, and although there are a lot of hijinks here—22 being wobbly in Joe’s body because she doesn’t know how to use it; Joe’s mannerisms and facial expressions coming through in his cat body—the fundamental idea of finding our lives’ purpose is central.

Is this all a little too mature for young viewers? Probably. Although the animation is colorful, and although the counselors and Terry who live in the Great Beyond and the Great Before are intriguingly weird squiggle shapes, and although the film has some really beautiful moments that center Joe’s love of music, “Soul” asks some deep questions that it doesn’t exactly answer. The core idea of finding our purpose vs. finding our spark (two terms the film throws around constantly without really elucidating the difference) might be particularly difficult to grasp for children, although for older teens and adults, this might resonate. What are you good at, vs. what do you love? Are those the same things? Is there a way to combine them? Teachers in particular get some love, with “Soul” suggesting that mentorship, trust, and guidance are the most important qualities any older person can offer someone younger.

But “Soul” is also so high-minded that its narrative is a little difficult to really grab onto, and there is some tonal mish-mash between Joe’s confusion about whether he’s alive or dead, and the subsequent goofiness of watching 22 react in joy to eating a slice of pizza—there are emotional extremes here that don’t always sync. And although the film’s insistence that life is beautiful, no matter what, makes for a moving sequence in its final moments, how “Soul” reaches that conclusion is sometimes through uneven narrative and character development. “Soul” is easier to respect than it is to enjoy.

“Soul” is streaming on Disney+.

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