Less than a year ago, we took everyday experiences for granted. From walking down a crowded street without a mask or social distancing to sitting in a crowded movie theatre; from sitting on a neighborhood stoop casually watching passerbys to following the uncertain flight path of a lone, lonely leaf overtaken by gravity; from eagerly waiting in line at a snowbound film festival for a star-studded premiere, we thought today would be like yesterday and tomorrow would be like today. Whatever pre-pandemic life might have been like for you, Pixar’s Pete Docter, the two-time Oscar-winning writer-director behind Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc., is here to remind us of everything we’ve missed and hope to regain with Soul, a wildly ambitious, sometimes brilliant, gorgeously animated (in every sense of the word) film, all while breaking one of Disney/Pixar’s biggest glass ceilings: an animated film featuring a Black lead character.
Soul introduces Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), an under-compensated jazz pianist by night, a part-time high-school band teacher by day, on a literally life-changing — and possibly life-ending — day. Offered a full-time job as a teacher with steady pay and benefits, including vacation time and healthcare (only in the United States of America could obtaining such coverage be a key plot point) Gardner is naturally conflicted by the prospect of seeing his long-deferred, lifelong dream disappear. The character’s day apparently changes for the better when a former student, Curley (Questlove), contacts him about a possible gig with renowned saxophonist and bandleader Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Even as he faces resistance from his pragmatically minded mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), Gardner plunges ahead, delivering a show-stopping audition that gets him the opportunity of a musician’s lifetime.
Gardner’s natural high, however, proves to be his literal undoing. With his head in the figurative clouds, Gardner slips into an open manhole, awakening seconds later on a stairway to the afterlife along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other recently deceased souls. Resisting the call — a subversive reversal of the Hero’s Journey — to the Great Beyond, here depicted as an irresistible blinding light with whatever constitutes an afterlife a virtual, permanent unknown, Gardner tumbles into the Great Before, a soft-hued, pastel-colored nursery for immature, pre-born souls. Operated like a well-intentioned, benevolent bureaucracy, the Great Before and its counselors (all named Jerry), prepare globular-shaped, pre-born souls for their future lives on Earth. Some, like the millennia-old 22 (Tiny Fey), resist all training and counseling, refusing to find their purpose or vocation and remaining permanently stuck in a kind of pre-born limbo.
That, in turn, sets in motion Soul’s second major plot turn. Convinced that he has a life worth living back on Earth, Gardner schemes to return to his still living, comatose body, coopting 22, their anti-establishment nature, and the help of spiritual advisor/mystic/hippie Moonwind (Graham Norton), to score a second chance pass back to Earth. Gardner, however, only partially succeeds: He ends up back on Earth, but stuck in a therapy cat while 22, Gardner’s opposite in practically every way, ends up in his body. On its own, the body switch plot turn may lose more than a few viewers, especially since it sets up 22 living, however briefly, as a Black man, to impart all-important “Life Lessons” to a recalcitrant Gardner, but Docter, working from a script co-written with Mike Jones (Coco) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), ensures that those lessons cut both ways.
As narratively complex and dense as it is — specifically with its multi-layered cosmology and the vast, heavenly bureaucracy partially inspired by A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger’s classic 1946 fantasy-romance — ultimately Soul is thematically straightforward and even uncomplicated. The film takes the better part of two hours to impart what seems like a simple, reductive message about embracing the smaller things in life (e.g. stopping to smell the roses or drink an overpriced cup of coffee) rather than some grand, overarching purpose that defines every waking moment. But as unintentional as it likely was when Docter and his collaborators began exploring the ideas behind Soul, it’s made all the more meaningful and moving in the middle of a pandemic that’s taken so much from so many for far too long.
Soul is currently available to stream via the Disney+ platform.