Editor’s Note: This Disney/Pixar Animation Studios film won the 2020 Oscar for Best Animated Feature and for the Best Original Score. It was also nominated for Best Sound. Available on Disney+ and Netflix DVD and to buy/rent ($19.99) on Apple TV+, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video
Demographers estimate more than 108 billion human beings have inhabited the earth since we became something recognizable as human. That number (it’s actually 108,210,121,415) figures in this movie and, I’m guessing, that will surprise you a bit. What does the number of human beings that have populated this planet have to do with a movie about jazz?
If you are as naive as I was, you will begin watching “Soul” with the notion that it has something to do with uniquely American musical genre of jazz and maybe its origins in our rich Black cultural history. You will probably expect lots of references to New Orleans and Southern history and the oppression of slavery. Throw in quotes from jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, and what you’ll get is a good appreciation for the rich background and straightforward beauty of jazz. I was looking forward to that kind of experience, although I wasn’t quite sure how the creator of “Soul,” Pixar Animated Studios, was going to pull off the documentary I was envisioning in an animated feature.
If you are as unsuspecting of the true nature of this movie as I was, then you are in for a real surprise and, I think, an extremely pleasant one. “Soul” strikes amazingly thoughtful chords as it extends its exploration of jazz into the realm of the unknown and—yes—soulful. Once again, Pixar, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, has given us a nearly perfect work of art and an unforgettable viewing experience.
About half of the movie has to do with the musical form of jazz. The story centers on Joe (Jamie Foxx), a musician living not in New Orleans, but in New York. He has a job teaching middle school band students. However, being a teacher isn’t his real passion. Joe dreams of playing jazz piano in nightclubs. Early in the movie he gets a break, and it appears that his dreams are about to come true.
Except they don’t. As is the case with most of us, something happens to Joe that changes his life trajectory. And with that development, we end up in the other half of the movie: The Great Beyond, The Great Before and The Zone. The great pleasures of this movie are here—in domains that probably can only be explored in an animated film. Here we aren’t dealing with people, but rather their essence, their “souls.” This movie, quite literally, explores notions of where souls come from, where they go, and what, exactly, humans might do with their souls while they are alive. These questions aren’t trivialized; there is substantial food for thought here, or should I say nourishment of the soul!
The film navigates back and forth between these two worlds with great finesse. Joe’s earthly province is rich in detail and visceral experiences. (One critic argued that this depiction of the New York urban scene is the best ever, at least in an animated feature.) This section of the movie features the terrific jazz music of Jon Batiste, an accomplished keyboardist, originally from Louisiana, but now ensconced in New York.
Joe is a Black man and, as such, represents the first time Pixar/Disney has attempted, realistically, to depict Black people in animated form. The animators, who skillfully portray Black skin textures and colors, have added several appealing new characters to Disney’s animation stable.
When Joe is in the “otherworld,” he is recognizably himself, but adopts a visage befitting a member of the “soul” community. It is pretty hard to quibble with his appearance—I mean, what exactly does a “soul” look like, anyway? The animation in this section of the movie is simpler and executed in pastel colors or black and white, and why not? The richness here is not in the visual presentation, but in the strange concoction of processes that souls undergo as they transition from one stage to another.
The other distinguishing characteristic of the Great Beyond and Before is the accompanying soundtrack. Instead of Jon Batiste’s jazzy improvs, we get the electronic music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who received two Academy Award nominations for 2020’s Best Original Score for “Soul” and “Mank” and who won for “Soul”). The ethereal and cerebral tone of their work is so soothing that it is difficult to imagine a better choice to represent the otherworld.
The preparation of souls for their adventure on Earth is particularly interesting—especially when two souls end up in bodies they weren’t intended to occupy. In addition to Joe’s soul, there is also Soul 22 (Tina Fey), who has a wonderful line: “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for.”
Since souls are numbered, imagine how long that Fey’s has been waiting for her “spark” to be matched with a body. When 22 and Joe finally do get to Earth, the resulting “switched identity” sequence goes on a bit too long, but is a key part of the film’s message, which I will leave to you to discover.
I’ve been a Pixar fan for many years now, and their annual release almost always ends up in my Top Four or Five movies of the year. I can’t emphasize enough that “animated feature” does not mean “kids” movie. I began to appreciate the difference about a decade ago when I watched “Up,” an animated feature that focused on an elderly man who has lost his wife and, through the magic of cartooning, manages to lift his house into the air and fly to South America for some adventures. Sure, the movie had some kid appeal, but it was also about how older folks deal with loneliness and mortality. (Although I’ve never been able to actually levitate my house and go on the road, I did buy an RV trailer a few years later. . . .)
Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative director and the person most responsible for the writing and directing of this movie, has been with the studio for years and also spearheaded the development of another seminally important animated feature, “Inside Out.” That film explored the role of emotions and especially the value of sadness as part of the human experience. While it was ostensibly a film for children, it resonated well with adults.
Another Pixar film in the same vein is “Coco,” which presented the Mexican culture in beautifully positive light. It also introduced the theme of death and the possibility of interacting with the deceased. My point is that animated films, especially many of those made by Pixar, are not vacuous Saturday-morning cartoons for children. Rather they delve into deep topics that are meant to challenge children and adults alike.
I loved “Soul,” and I heartily recommend it to all my adult friends. But I was curious about how a child might react to the movie. So I consulted my “child expert,” my granddaughter Annabelle. I asked her (via her Mom) what she thought the film was about. My eight-year-old grandchild responded that it was about “confidence and enjoying the little things in life.” She agreed that it was thematically similar to “Coco,” but with better music. As usual, she said more in a few short sentences then I said in this entire review.
I did find one flaw with “Soul.” While each of its worlds appropriately has its own visual and musical style and while the characters do transition as they move back and forth, I wanted to see more of a linkage between the two worlds. I think the relationship between the essence of jazz—the harmony found in spontaneity—and the essence of the humanity’s “spark” could have been illustrated more directly. (Maybe by more overtly sharing musical themes?!). That said, “Soul” still deserves 4.5 stars.