Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
What’s your purpose in life? What will it take for you to find it? Pixar/Disney’s excellent “Soul” should enchant both parents and children while raising significant issues in the process.
Middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) is about to get his big break. After a former student asks him to audition with famous jazz musician Dorothea Williams’ band, Joe’s invited to play with them at the famed Half Note Club. But when he accidentally falls into an open manhole, Joe’s soul is spirited away to the Great Before, a place where new souls get their personalities prior to coming to Earth.
Determined to return to his body, Joe teams up with a wayward soul named 22 (voice of Tina Fey). It’s up to Joe to convince 22 of the virtues of the human experience before Joe’s body dies. But that plan is sidetracked when 22 finds herself inhabiting Joe, while Joe is trapped in a comforting hospital emotional support cat. The race is on to restore Joe and give 22 a new perspective.
Pixar employs its fantastical approach to follow the existential journey. As one would expect from the esteemed, award-winning studio, the animation is polished, colorful and inventive, with a vibrant life to the work that continues the genre's transcendence. And the moral of the story here, about finding oneself, may be broad and humorous, but it’s undeniably well told. I suspect, like another resonant Pixar classic, the Oscar-winning “Inside Out,” “Soul” will touch some viewers deeply.
It helps that the voice talent is so deep. The whimsical storyline makes excellent use of comic personalities, including British comedian Graham Norton and “The IT Crowd” alum Richard Ayoade. Famous television mom Phylicia Rashad is lovely, voicing Joe’s concerned and resourceful mom. And “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs appears in a humorous role.
The jazz music is terrific, written by “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader, Jon Batiste. These original songs set an authentic tone.
In one critical highlight set in the Half Note Club, Joe, on piano, accompanies Williams (Angela Bassett) on saxophone. Although fancifully animated, this sequence is like a live concert of sorts, transporting the viewer to the club. Co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are careful to respect jazz traditions, and by consulting with musicians like Herbie Hancock and others, the characterizations feel genuine.
The emergence of the writer and now co-director Kemp Powers in 2020 is impressive. Not only does he receive writing credit here, but Pixar elevated him to director status. This new role makes Powers the first African American director of a feature film in the studio’s history. Viewers should note that Powers is receiving awards buzz for his screenplay for director Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” which is also opening on Christmas Day.
“Soul” is a heavier, more important film than Pixar’s other 2020 offering “Onward.” Both films share the commitment to delivering animated adventures that please audiences young and old. But where “Onward” skewed younger and embraced obvious comedic elements, “Soul” challenges us to consider its heartfelt themes. We’re reminded that the process of self-discovery always provides a solid foundation for great storytelling.
Watch “Soul” on the Disney+ streaming platform starting on Dec. 25, 2020.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com