Movie Review: Soul

by Annika Engelbrecht, Opinions Reporter
graphic courtesy of the Philly Voice

“Don’t worry. You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what Earth is for.”  After 2020, that statement couldn’t be more accurate. Produced by Pixar and released by Disney, “Soul” is a heartfelt movie that can spark a discussion about the purpose of life, among other things.  With lively humor and a heartwarming plot, “Soul” is definitely worth taking the time to watch.

Set in New York City, the movie focuses on the life (and afterlife) of Joe Gardner, a struggling part-time band teacher who gets offered a full-time position at the school. However, accepting the offer means passing up his dream of being a full-time jazz musician. That same day, Joe gets a call asking him to play piano for the Dorothea Williams Quartet, a prominent musical group. He jumps at the opportunity and astounds Dorothea Williams, the lead soloist whom the band is named after, with his talent, landing him a gig later that night. Ecstatic, Joe calls someone to tell them the good news, and, focused on his phone call, he falls down a sewer grate to his death. 

Joe lands on a conveyor belt as a soul, a blue-green figure with attributes of a human body. The conveyor belt is heading toward the entrance to the afterlife. Convinced he doesn’t belong, Joe’s soul sprints down the belt until it falls off and ends up in a place dubbed the “You Seminar,” where newly created souls cultivate specific traits and passions before being sent to Earth. Joe’s soul tries to get back to Earth, but he is unable to without an “Earth pass,” a pass that souls who develop passions are gifted.

Joe’s soul hatches a plan with soul 22, a soul notorious for not being able to cultivate a passion, to find a way back to Earth. Since 22 has no intention of going to Earth, the plan is for her to give her pass to Joe, so he can get back home. Ultimately, that plan fails — and Joe’s soul undergoes a brief expedition into a cat’s body — and Joe and 22 have to devise a new plan.

Unlike typical Pixar movies, “Soul” tackles heavy topics such as death and fate. While that may deter some viewers, I found the mature plot to be captivating. What to do in your life is a question most anyone can relate to, and watching this movie made me think about my plans. 

However, “Soul” doesn’t box itself in as a movie geared toward adults; the movie’s bright colors, animation and humor make it kid-friendly. It’s also a story about friendship and a lesson in selflessness, a quality that kids should learn. Being able to extract meaning from a movie makes it infinitely better, and that’s exactly what Pixar accomplished with Soul. 

A highlight of the film was its phenomenal animation, especially its vivid depiction of New York City. The animation portrays far more relatable characters than I grew up seeing on TV. There are people from all walks of life, with flaws and senses of style.

 After growing up with the classic Disney movies where everyone looks perfect and uniform, it’s nice to see figures who look human, albeit animated. The characters are expressive, pushing viewers to empathize with their experiences; the chaos 22 feels when thrust into the city’s atmosphere reminded me of my first time there. 

“Soul” makes history as Pixar’s first film to have a Black lead; however, that doesn’t address the film’s questionable choices, such as how Tina Fey, a white woman, voices the body of Joe, instead of Jamie Foxx, a Black man, due to Joe temporarily swapping bodies with 22. 

Another critique is the plot itself, as reviewers had hoped that Pixar’s first movie about a Black character would focus more on his experiences on Earth. Instead, the need to help 22 overshadows Joe’s story on Earth, insinuating that telling a story about a Black man’s life on Earth isn’t captivating enough.

Overall, the animation, theme and plot were exceptional; however, many believe the movie falls somewhat short when it comes to meaningfully portraying a Black lead. While not perfect, “Soul’s” foundations: the animation, theme and plot create the makings for a great movie, and I hope “Soul” paves the way for more mature Pixar films in the future.