Movie Review: Soul

Warning: A couple of tiny spoilers ahead.

The talented storytellers and animators at Pixar are back with what many people are calling a companion piece to their highly successful film from 2015, INSIDE OUT. While that film dealt with the emotions that rattle around in our mind, SOUL delves into what might make up our souls.

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who longs for a career in jazz. On the same day that the school offers him full-time employment, something that makes his long-suffering mother (Phylicia Rashad) very happy, he also gets a gig playing piano in respected saxophone player Dorothea Williams’ (Angela Bassett) jazz quartet. Joe’s good fortune doesn’t last long though, for he falls into an open manhole on the way home from his audition. In his comatose state, Joe’s soul lands on a conveyor belt headed for the “Great Beyond” but Joe isn’t quite ready to call it quits. He runs in the other direction, landing in a place known as the “Great Before” where unborn souls are prepared for life on Earth. The soul counsellors who run the place pair Joe up with 22 (Tina Fey), a cynical soul who has been there for millennia unable to complete her badge of personality, quirks and interests that will allow her to live in a body on Earth. Joe and 22 make a deal that if he can find the “spark” that will give 22 her final trait, 22 will give the badge to Joe so that he can return to his body and continue living. With the help of Moonwind (Graham Norton), a mystic sign twirler who rescues lost souls, Joe and 22 embark on a transcendental journey to discover what gives souls their uniqueness.

Growing up, people who knew a lot more about life than I did told me that the best job I could possibly have is the one that pays me to do what I love doing. The key, they said, was to find the thing that speaks to my soul: my passion. According to SOUL though, it’s not passion that gives our souls the spark it needs. The spark comes from appreciating all the little things in life. Huh, what??? Like 22, a slice of New York pizza or a maple seed twirling down to the ground brings me happiness but I’m not about to start eating pizza under a maple tree every day just to be happy. There’s also something called the Law of Diminishing Returns. Unfortunately, as heartwarming as the story is, the writers want us to believe that what will spark our souls is remembering to stop and smell the roses. When Joe returns to Earth, he may or may not be giving up on his dream – it’s left up in the air. Instead, what we do know is that he’s going to focus on what makes him happy. But why can’t Joe have both? Why can’t he inspire the next generation of musicians during the day and play jazz music at night? Happiness will make your day more enjoyable but it’s passion that will get you bouncing out of bed in the morning.

SOUL follows the tried-and-true (dare I say “well-worn”?) Pixar formula of pairing two very different characters who are thrown together by circumstance and end up learning something from each other. Pixar’s next production, LUCA, which is due out this summer, appears to be sticking to the same formula. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The difference this time around, though, is that SOUL is Pixar’s very first film that features a main protagonist who is African-American. Like all of Pixar’s films, the animation in SOUL is stunning, from the near-realistic images of New York City and the different shades of African-American skin tones to the surrealistic images of the soul counsellors in the Great Before. The music is also a treat for jazz fans with the film’s New York City sequences composed and arranged by Jon Batiste (THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT), and songs from Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Erykah Badu, Daveed Diggs (HAMILTON) and others.

Without a doubt, the film will get nominated for a few Oscars and rightly so. While I loved the animation and the music, the story just didn’t work for me. I remember feeling the same way about INSIDE OUT. SOUL is available now on Disney+.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 8th, 8:30 am HK time!

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