If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the course of Pete Docter’s previous Pixar films, it’s that he knows how to tug at your heartstrings through impactful montages. Up, Inside Out, and even Monsters, Inc. all play your emotions like a musical instrument and crescendo with clips of the characters lives that tell you a lot in a very short period of time. It’s fitting that a filmmaker so skilled at playing the heartstrings strikes a new chord with Soul, Pixar’s first animated film with a Black lead character that premieres on Disney+ this Christmas.
Joe Gardner has spent his whole life dreaming of becoming a professional jazz pianist, but things haven’t gone according to plan. Feeling trapped in his teaching job to pay the bills, he finally seems like he’s about to get his big break when a misstep sends his soul to the afterlife. Trying to escape, he ends up in “The Great Before” and is assigned as a mentor to a reluctant soul named 22 who decides to help him try to return to earth.
As always, the Pixar storytellers have a few tricks up their sleeve and Soul takes viewers on a journey that, although predictable, has some unexpected surprises along the way. “The Great Before” is beautiful, like a spiritual World’s Fair with some artistically groundbreaking visuals. There’s also a poetic statement with all souls depicted as a blue/green prismatic substance, showing that now matter what we look like on the outside, we all come from and return to the same place.
While Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is the main character who drives the plot forward, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) starts out as comedic relief but ends up stealing the show. The story team and screenwriter Kemp Powers have done an amazing job with delivering exposition through plot-driving moments. The Black American community will also recognize aspects of Black culture depicted that were sensitively crafted with the assistance of a Black Story Trust.
Soul also has a visual language that feels innovative while also fitting alongside Pixar’s other classic characters. The souls in particular have soft, blurred edges, while line details around the hands and facial features have an almost hand-drawn look while still giving depth to the 3D world. It’s at times reminiscent of Inside Out, but for the most part offers its own refreshing visual experience.
Pixar delivers another family friendly film that is fun for the whole family while tackling a big topic: the meaning of a life worth living. Through Joe and 22, viewers young and young at heart will find inspiration and an uplifting message that comes at a time when we need it most. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll leave the film wanting to make every moment count.
I give Soul 5 out of 5 Joe Ranft sticker name tags.
Soul premieres December 25th on Disney+.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.