– for thematic elements and some language.
Director: Pete Doctor
Starring: voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Phylicia Rashad, Alice Braga, Rachel House
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2020
Blu-Ray Release Date: March 23, 2021 (Amazon.com)
After landing the gig of a lifetime, a New York jazz pianist suddenly finds himself trapped in a strange land between Earth and the afterlife. (from IMDb)
Pixar is an animation studio that has been churning out high quality animated entertainment for decades now. However, in the past ten years or so, the studio has been digging deeper with more philisophical and emotional films than ever before. From Inside Out to Coco and even Cars 3, these stories have had serious, grown up themes and lessons packaged up in the guise of a family movie. Granted, anyone who knows Pixar knows that you can expect the unexpected in their movies, and you’ll get more than what is shown on the surface. Coco had taken an interesting look at death through the lens of the Mexican culture, using music an a child’s own journey to tell the emotional story. Soul actually does something rather similar, trading the Mexican culture for African American culture and using jazz music this time around. And instead of following a young boy through the story, we’re following a middle school band teacher with aspirations of becoming a full-time jazz musician. In Soul, we journey with Joe Gardner into the afterlife and The Great Beyond.
Right off the bat, a movie about the afterlife seems like an odd choice for “a kids movie.” (But let’s be honest; Pixar seems to make their movies for adults just as much or even more so than for children. It just gets marketed as a kids film because it’s animated and from Disney.) Within the first few minutes of Soul, we meet Joe in his day-to-day routine as a teacher and then see him go for an audition as a professional jazz pianist. Things are looking super bright for him when he suddenly falls through an open manhole on the streets of New York City and wakes up as a glowing little soul in the afterlife. Ouch. As he tries to figure out how to get back life on Earth, Joe discovers the different areas and habitants of the soul world. It’s a quirky, unusual and imaginative world. Pixar utilizes line shapes and luminiscent backdrops to give viewers something new to represent life after death (and before it). But once you get past the relatively bizarre universe, Soul begins to show its true heart as we get a deep and introspective movie about life, passion, purpose and meaning.
Now, as you can imagine, the world of Soul is one of those that attempts to represent the human soul and afterlife in a universal way, given all of the different belief systems in the Disney audience. With that, God is completely left out of the equation and there’s no real mention of Him at all. The mythos of Soul also tries to debunk the idea of being “born for” something in an attempt to explain that not all of us are necessarily meant to live out our dreams and that “that’s okay.” While that’s a realistic view of real life, obviously the Christian faith holds to the belief that God created us all for a purpose and that He truly does make us “born for” something. Soul approaches this idea in a way that holds to the thought that we may have a purpose, but we may not know what that is right away (which, admittedly, is realistic). And it also attempts to debunk the notion that our passions define us. There’s a great deal of theology to unpack here, and there’s still plenty to glean from the story even if its spiritual view is erroneous or incomplete.
Without spoiling everything for you, the main lesson Soul drives home is to live life to the fullest, and to not lose sight of the little day-to-day joys and wonders that we can easily take for granted each day. Especially in our busy, mobile-device-driven, work-work-work-go-go-go world, it’s easy to get distracted from what matters most (be it family, friends, our relationship with God, community, etc). Soul is a lovely reminder of this. It’s also interesting to see how the movie portrays what they call “lost souls.” In this universe, “lost souls” are people who have lost their way, whether by being so obsessed with their passions that they lose sight, they’re stuck in a directionless life, or they’re utterly discouraged and broken. The Pixar team portrays these people as large, black, tentacled creatures with hollow glowing eyes. They’re pretty scary, but when we first see them, we don’t exactly know what they are yet. It’s an interesting take on “lost souls,” and it’s rewarding when we see them rescued from this state. When we meet the “lost souls,” we also meet a mystic spirit named Moonwind, who is someone who meditates so deeply in the real world that it transports his spirit to the soul realm. The idea is super New Age-y, but he’s easily the funniest character in the movie, and some of his scenes later in the movie are just a total blast. All in all, if you can take Soul‘s artistic representation of the spirit world with a mere grain of salt, you’ll have no trouble enjoying what else it has to offer.
I expect nothing less than amazing animation from Pixar, but Soul seems to take things to a the next level. Sure, the soul world is pretty, but their representation of the real world – portrayed with a stylized look, of course – is breathtaking. At one point, a fire truck zooms by looking so photoreal, I couldn’t stop myself from audibly gaping, “Wow!” It’s a gorgeous looking movie. I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the movie doesn’t stay entirely in the soul world, which easily elevated my enjoyment of the film. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s definitely a fun twist I wasn’t expecting.
The content for the movie is definitely PG. I think the theme of death and the afterlife could be a scary one for many young viewers. And in a year when an invisible virus is highly publicized to be spreading death across the world, a movie about life after death may not be the best thing for kids struggling with fear. Granted, it does encourage viewers to appreciate life and our days here on Earth, but it’s still a serious and heavy theme that not every child (or even adult) will be able to process properly. Aside from the “lost souls” being pretty creepy, there isn’t too much visually that would be considered disturbing or gruesome. We don’t see Joe’s real body after he falls down the manhole, but we do later see a vision he imagines of his twisted body before he might reunite his spirit with it and it jumps up alive again. It’s more silly looking and intended to be funny than disturbing. There is some mild language, as the MPAA rating suggests, but it’s 1 “cr*p” and a use of “Oh my L-rd!” (Joe’s mom also says “Lord knows…” at one point, but I personally wouldn’t consider that blasphemy, especially in the context its used.) There’s also a scene where Joe tries to ask subtly if he’s in Hell, and says “H – E – double hockey sticks,” to which a bunch of children souls repeat the word “hell” over and over (as a gag). Lastly, there’s an intense scene at the end where a character is overwhelmed with dark, discouraging thoughts and they repeat to themselves over and over that they have no purpose. We then see eyeless black clouds of characters shouting discouraging words at them about never measuring. It has a positive resolution, but it’s definitely something many of us can relate to — taking unkind words to heart and listening to discouraging words till they poison our spirit. It’s probably the movie’s saddest moment, too.
Soul is a deep and emotional movie about life, life after death, and living our short time here on Earth with meaning and purpose. There’s also a kind of mentor theme of sacrifice and readying others in life to live theirs to the fullest as we get on in years. That may be one of the sweetest (and most bittersweet) themes of the film. If you do choose to see Soul, take its view of the spiritual world lightly, and instead let the story inspire you to live life to its fullest and pursue God’s purpose in your own life.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 3/24/21)
iTunes / Digital Copy Bonus Features Review
Soul is available on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD and through the usual digital providers.
Along with the feature film, the iTunes digital copy of Soul includes the following extras:
Not Your Average Joe (9:43) – Jamie Foxx talks about the character of Joe and what it was like to play him. The Pixar creative team also talk about the goal of honoring the African American community through the film and the “cultural trust” team they built to make sure the movie creates a genuine representation of the culture.
Astral Taffy (8:12) is about the soul world, the “You Seminar,” and the look and design of the afterlife.
Pretty Deep for a Cartoon (6:26) – Here, director Pete Doctor says he wanted to make a movie about the meaning of life. The Pixar team talks about the evolution of the movie’s story, and how Joe started out as an aspiring actor before he was changed to a jazz musician.
Into the Zone: The music and Sound of Soul (8:21) is about the music and soundscape of the movie. Jazz musician Jon Batiste provided all of the piano music for Joe’s character, and they even modeled Joe’s performance after Jon’s.
Soul, Improvised (6:48) is all about how Pixar had to finish the last several weeks of the movie at home because of COVID-19, and the challenges that presented.
Jazz Greats (2:47) – A group of jazz legends were invited by Pixar to watch the movie. Here, a few of them talk about what they think of the movie and what music means to them — and how life is more than what you do.
Feature Commentary (1:40:31) by director Pete Doctor, co-director/writer Kemp Powers and producer Dana Murray.
Lastly, there are five Deleted Scenes, with an introduction from the filmmakers (22:10), presented in unfinished storyboard-style animation. There are also three promotional Trailers (6:12) for the film included as well.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/24/21)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Joe kisses a woman on the mouth instead of the cheek (like he usually does). After she reacts pleasantly surprised, 22 calls her a cougar.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “cr*p,” 1 “Oh my L-rd,” 3 incomplete “What the–,” 1 “h*llish,” and after Joe tries to ask subtly if he’s in Hell, and says “H – E – double hockey sticks,” a bunch of children souls repeat the word “hell” over and over (played for laughs)
Violence: Joe’s mom, a tailor, while talking to him at one point, gets irritated and repeatedly sticks a woman with pins as she works on her clothes; A pile of bricks almost lands on Joe while he walks in a street. He then almost gets hit by various cars till he eventually falls down a manhole. We then see him appear as a soul in the afterlife; A girl soul looks down and wonders where her pants are; A little kid soul bites Joe’s arm; 22 tries to rip up her soul pass and then burn it but it always comes back; We see what looks like Joe in a coma in a hospital bed; 22 repeatedly slaps Joe to show they can’t feel; We see a scary tentacled blob, which we later learn is a lost soul, chase after Joe and 22. It’s then caught and set free by Moonwind; A man springs from his desk and throws all the computer monitors on the floor. He then does it to another desk and then flips over a table; A man falls through a hole in and briefly dies. He has a dead stare as he floats in the dark before coming back. After he’s brought back to life, he spazzes and crashes into some boxes on the street; We see a lost soul that grows big and scary. As Joe chases after it, it runs away and crashes through a screen and then ties a line character in knots; The lost soul suddenly pounces on Joe and swallows him in a black dust cloud; We see scary, eyeless characters grow tall and surround Joe as they shout words of discouragement and lies about not being good enough. A black cloud version of Joe spews black cloud out of its mouth onto Joe.