Pixar’s Soul Review

Soul Review

“Is all this living really worth dying for?”

Regardless of their protagonist, be they futuristic robots, animals, anthropomorphic cars, living toys, monsters, or teenage children, Pixar films continuously grapple with bigger and more varied aspects of the human condition. With their latest outing, Soul, the studio seems to have no interest in taming their ambitions.

Not Your Average Joe

Director Pete Docter’s follow-up to 2015’s Inside Out is initially set in a gorgeously realized version of modern-day New York.  It is there that we meet Jamie Foxx’s Joe Gardner, a middle-aged, middle school band teacher, who aspires to be more. As luck would have it, a former student gives him the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to audition for a jazz quartet lead by Dorothea Williams, a respected jazz saxophonist.

Joe kills the audition. He’s in the zone and impresses Williams. He’s got the gig and is on cloud nine, calling anyone who will listen about what has just happened. The only problem is that while talking on the phone, he manages to fall down an open manhole cover. In the tradition of films like Ghost Dad, Joe isn’t dead, he’s just been separated from his body. Regardless, he’s still been sent to the Great Beyond, what appears to be a bug zapper in the sky, complete with an unsettling zapping sound as souls enter it.

RELATED- Disney/Pixar Give a Glimpse Behind The Inspirations of Soul

This simply won’t do.  He was on the cusp of fulfilling his destiny and he has to get back. During his haphazard escape attempt, he stumbles into the Great Before, where unborn souls go to get their various personality traits, as well as their spark before heading to Earth.  Some unborn souls need help in this endeavor from mentors. Enter 22, the recalcitrant soul portrayed by Tina Fey to complete the buddy duo.

22 Jump Street

Mistaken for another recently departed, Joe is paired with 22 in an attempt to help them find their spark. The only problem is that 22 has been at this for an unspecified amount of time, likely a millennia, and has little to no interest in being born. Joe isn’t the first mentor this soul has had and 22 vows to make him wish he’d never died, as she did with his predecessors.

When 22 realizes that Joe really isn’t the mentor he was mistaken for, the two devise a plan that will let them both get exactly what they want. Joe will help 22 get their Earth pass and they, in turn, will give it to Joe. Joe can go home and 22 can stay in the great before. Of course, nothing is as simple as it sounds and in order to accomplish their mission. They have to traverse The Great Before, the streets of New York, and a few places in between. Joe is determined to help 22 find their purpose in life, so he can get back to living his, as he believes it’s just on the brink of beginning in earnest.

What Worked In Soul

Mostly everything. I wouldn’t say that building a city is easy, but it exists, so it’s much easier to create. That said, what the team at Pixar did was create a living breathing version of New York that was both grand and intimate at the same time. We get a few establishing shots of the city that show you just how good it looks. At the same time, we’re inside schools, apartment buildings, barbershops, and businesses that make the city a character in a way that hasn’t been done in Pixar movies up to this point. The color palette is warm, the streets are busy and the subway is…what you would expect from a New York subway, within the confines of a film primarily aimed at children.

Speaking of which, something that stuck out to me. There are a couple of jokes that made me blink, wondering if I was watching a Disney movie. I remember a couple of years ago, Incredibles 2 caught some flack for using words like “hell” and “damn” in a PG film. One joke seemingly thumbs its nose at this criticism, which actually made me laugh harder.


This is also the first Pixar cartoon that I can recall race ever being mentioned. It comes up twice, once as a joke and the other as an explanation for what jazz is. I don’t raise race or language up as negatives, just something that I noticed because they’re atypical. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that children are more aware of things in the world than most media gives them credit for. Even at 4 years old, my daughter knows she’s a brown girl and is keen to spot characters who do and don’t look like her.

I also really enjoyed Fey and Foxx together. His excitement for life and her restrained performance went really well together. In interviews, Fey has specifically said that she channeled her daughters, who generally seemed unimpressed with everything. That definitely came through. Foxx channeled his love of music and at every turn, it permeated through the screen.

The Great Before/Beyond was an interesting take on life outside of death. Particularly The Great Before, where souls get their quirks, interests and personalities. The cool colors and minimalist design of the landscape and Gerrys allowed for the humor of what was essentially a preschool to come through.  I guess this is a good place to turn to…

What Didn’t Work for Me


There wasn’t much to dislike about this film. If I’m being perfectly honest, Terry wasn’t a character that I disliked, so much as I didn’t see the need for. See, the Gerrys are charged with running The Great Before and Great Beyond. While Terry has the sole responsibility of keeping count of all the souls that enter The Great Beyond. As Joe has made his escape, he catches Terry’s ire and the diminutive Picasso-esque character sets off on a quest to track down 22 and Joe. This film didn’t really need an “antagonist”, but it got one anyway.

Final Grade: A

This is an easy one to recommend, given that it will be released on Disney+, rather than theaters.  It’s a shame this film won’t get the theatrical release it deserves. But if you have Disney+, it’s a no brainer to say you should watch this. The jokes are funny, the music is good and the overall journey is meaningful. Soul doesn’t have the heartbreaking opening of Up!. But it’ll likely be remembered for how it tackles such a difficult subject. Which is essentially: what is the meaning of life? To that point, I like where the film ends up and while I don’t think I’d want a sequel, because I like where we ended. Still, I could easily see either that or several animated shorts based on the world. Time will tell but, in the meantime, enjoy Soul. It’s a great time.

Disney/Pixar’s Soul will be available on Disney+ December 25th.


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