I really wanted to love Soul…but I didn’t. Being a jazz fan gave me reason to anticipate something great from what I knew of this project. As it turns out, jazz is only one component of Soul, the other being a metaphysical exploration of life itself, both before and after we’re born.
Are we imbued with certain traits or tendencies before we take on human form? How do we measure success in life? These are some of the Big Questions facing Joe Morgan (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a high-school band teacher who is offered a one-time chance to sit in with a well-known jazz star. Instead, he is suddenly whisked away to an other-worldly realm, where he is paired with a soul called 22 (Tina Fey) who hasn’t yet found her purpose or a reason to embrace life.
Along the way we learn more about Joe, who’s never enjoyed real success as a musician and settles for a career teaching untalented (and unmotivated) kids. Through a series of vignettes in his mother’s seamstress storefront, a local barber shop, and other familiar locales we come to understand what has kept him going… just as 22 begins to value the little things that make life on earth so precious, from a ride on the New York subway to a leaf falling off a tree.
Writer-director Pete Docter has never played it safe. He opened Up with an unforgettably poignant portrait of a love affair that spanned a lifetime. He created Inside Out to try to understand the conflicting emotions that dictate an adolescent girl’s decisions. These are mature and provocative films that aren’t aimed at kids but ingeniously cloak themselves in the guise of family entertainment—a key element that I felt was missing.
Soul explores the frustrations of a middle-aged black man who hasn’t achieved his goal in life; now he finds himself in limbo, unwilling to move on. That’s pretty heady (not to mention heavy) stuff. I found the characters in the other realm off-putting, and never came to care about 22 or her dilemma—not in the same way I was rooting for Joe. The film uses bold, abstract figures and other components of modern art for the “other” world and contrasts them against realistic images that comprise the vivid and sharply observed scenes in Manhattan. As always, the Pixar team has given the movie a look unlike any other they’ve made.
For this screenplay Docter collaborated with Kemp Powers (who wrote One Night in Miami) and Mike Jones and consulted with individuals and institutions steeped in African-American culture. For it to work, Soul had to feel authentic, and it does. It also benefits from a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, punctuated by lively jazz interludes from the gifted Jon Batiste, who appears on television nightly with Stephen Colbert.
I feel like an ingrate as I complain about a mainstream Disney release that doesn’t talk down to its audience, a Trojan horse of philosophizing packaged as shiny entertainment. But as much as I was intrigued by Soul, I didn’t actually enjoy the experience. I watched it with my family and we all had different reactions.
I would be foolish and narrow-minded if I didn’t applaud the effort and artistry that went into this film. How lucky we are that a studio like Pixar exists, unafraid to tackle complex and challenging ideas within the mainstream movie industry. I just wish I liked their new movie better.