Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring musician looking for his big break. When he gets the opportunity he has been waiting for, he has an accident and finds his soul heading towards the Great Beyond. Not ready to move on, he escapes to the Great Before, where he meets the young soul 22 (Tina Fey) and together they try to return Joe’s soul to his body.
Over the years, Pixar has told a variety of stories that have all been unique in their own way. Keeping with that trend, Soul is unlike any film Pixar has made before; the studio continues to find new and original stories to tell. This movie manages to stand out among Pixar’s other films as a masterful study of one’s perception of their purpose in life. It might not be the most kid-accessible plot but it is approached in a way that is meaningful to all ages.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a musician who never quite got his big break. In between going to various auditions, Joe became a middle school band teacher. He enjoys being a teacher but nonetheless feels unfulfilled and still chases his aspirations of becoming a musician. When a former student, Curley (Questlove), calls Joe and invites him to audition for his quartet, Joe feels could finally be the break he has been looking for. At the audition, Joe gets lost in the music and makes a good impression on the quartets leader, Dorothea (Angela Bassett), who asks him to return later that night for the show.
The strength of these first few scenes is they expertly set up several characters and threads that will be important throughout the rest of the film. Just before going to the audition, we see the dynamic between Joe and his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), who wants her son to find a stable job and not a career with the uncertainty that comes with being a full-time musician. It is clear that they have a strained relationship. It is also clear that Joe has respect for his mother and wants to make her happy but at the same time, wants to be allowed to follow his dreams and do what makes him happy. We see Joe’s passion for music as well when he zones out while playing the piano during his audition. His passion is seen, not just heard. We, as the audience, are pulled into his love of music and can feel how much Joe enjoys playing piano; we understand how important this opportunity is to Joe.
Excited to be offered the job he has been waiting for, Joe hurries home but in his rush, he becomes distracted and falls into an open manhole. He wakes up as a soul going towards a giant light in the Great Beyond. Not ready to pass on before getting his big break, he tries to escape from the Great Beyond and finds himself in the Great Before, the place where young souls reside before going to Earth. As Joe travels between the Great Beyond and the Great Before, we get the first glimpse at how varied the animation of this film his. The sequence of Joe falling was very Kubrick-esque to me, being both entrancing and intriguing at the same time. Once in the Great Before, the style of animation is much more fluid and abstract that the realism seen in the New York City sequences. It’s very similar to Inside Out, where there are no clear edges and the environment is very flamboyant and runs together. The appearance of Terry and the multiple Jerry’s is probably the most unique character design in all of Pixar, which is saying something.
In the Great Before, Joe meets Counselor Jerry (Alice Braga), who informs him that souls in the Great Before can reach Earth using the Earth portal. However, every time he goes through the portal, Joe is returned to the Great Before. Thinking Joe is a lost soul mentor, Terry takes him to the other mentors, who assist young souls in finding their “spark” to complete their personalities, displayed as a badge on the soul, before being allowed to Earth. Seeing a completed Earth Pass as his ticket through the portal back to Earth, he impersonates another soul mentor. In the mentoring program, he meets soul 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who refuses to go to Earth. The pair agree to complete 22’s Earth Pass so Joe can use it to return to Earth and 22 can stay in the Great Before forever.
Unable to find 22’s spark in the Hall of Everything, Joe and 22 go see Moonwind (Graham Norton) and the Mystics without Borders, a group who help “the lost souls of Earth find their way.” When the mystics locate Joe’s body on Earth, Joe rushes to get back. In his haste, Joe accidentally brings 22 with him. When Joe wakes up, he realizes that he is in the body of a therapy cat and 22 is inside his body. Together, 22 and Joe set out to find Moonwind on Earth to help them return to their proper selves.
What follows is a extraordinarily crafted story of friendship and passion. Joe and 22’s journey throughout the course of the film sees the two discovering that there is more to life than either expected. The themes are geared more towards an older audience who might have more appreciation for the movie’s message, but I feel they are also laid out in a way that a younger viewer can understand as well. It might not be as exciting or adventurous as some of Pixar’s other films, but the characters and their journeys make the experience well worth your while.
I mentioned it previously but I can’t review an animated film and not talk about the animation. New York City is a city full of movement and excitement. Soul captures that with such realism that if the characters themselves were not caricatures, it would be hard to tell this is animation. The opening scenes provide a look at the beautiful animation to come in the film but when Joe and 22 set off in New York City together is when the animation of the bustling city becomes truly breathtaking. The sights, the sounds, the colors, the energy, everything is authentic and gorgeously rendered. Pixar continues pushing the boundaries of what is possible in animation.
I thought Soul was GREAT 😀 The story provides a fantastic and emotional study of inspiration and purpose. As we get older, we forget that there is beauty in life around us. Soul serves as a reminder that no matter how mundane things become, never lose sight of what makes life truly beautiful and worthwhile.
Cast & Crew
Pete Doctor – Director / Writer
Kemp Powers – Co-Director / Writer
Mike Jones – Writer
Jonathan Batiste – Jazz Compositions and Arrangements
Trent Reznor – Composer
Atticus Ross – Composer
Jamie Foxx – Joe (voice)
Tina Fey – 22 (voice)
Graham Norton – Moonwind (voice)
Rachel House – Terry (voice)
Alice Braga – Counselor Jerry A (voice)
Richard Ayoade – Counselor Jerry B (voice)
Phylicia Rashad – Libba (voice)
Questlove – Curley (voice)
Angela Bassett – Dorothea (voice)
Cora Champommier – Connie (voice)
Donnell Rawlings – Dez (voice)
Margo Hall – Melba (voice)
Rhodessa Jones – Lulu (voice)
Daveed Diggs – Paul (voice)