Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Journeys Into the Afterlife for a Story About Chasing Your Passion

Pixar’s “Soul” marks a continued growth in the maturity of themes being explored by Pixar animated films. It finds a way to be wistful and funny, while exploring weighty issues. On the one hand it’s a refreshing expansion in the studio’s range of diversity, delivering a Black American story that celebrates jazz as part of our cultural songbook. On the other, it proves that animation can be used to venture into ideas about life and death where its freedom of creativity allows filmmakers to say so much more. This is another release now premiering via streaming due to the pandemic, and it’s a good one to watch at home with younger viewers who will no doubt ask endless questions about its more challenging concepts. 

The main character of “Soul” is already a walking symbol of so many of us. Joe (Jamie Foxx) a New York City band teacher who sees his daytime job as a temporary necessity while pursuing his dreams of being a jazz musician.  Now middle-aged, Joe keeps going even as his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), disapproves of his stubbornness. Joe’s father was a musician and Libba prefers her son focus on more stable footing, like the full time job with benefits he’s just been offered by the school. Luck finally seems to strike when a former student of Joe’s offers him a spot playing piano for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). It’s hard out here for an underdog and after scoring the gig, Joe falls into a manhole and into the afterlife. Now just a soul nearing the beyond, Joe refuses to die and runs, falling instead into “The Great Before.” It is here where new souls bounce around looking for their “spark,” which then signals they are ready for life on Earth. Taking on the false identity of a Swedish psychologist, Joe is tasked to mentor “22,” a restless soul (voiced by Tina Fey) who sees no point in dealing with the hassle of living. 

It is more than fitting for jazz to play such an important part of the plot in “Soul.” The writing and ideas move along with a free tone that can feel like improvising. Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers find an impressive balance between the almost trippy afterlife sequences and life in the big city. The beyond has souls floating their way up a cosmic passageway towards that big, white light we always hear about in near death experiences, while the Great Before is a dreamlike zone with a summer camp feel. The counselors and instructors look like futuristic Picasso sketches. Bouncy souls giggle and traverse fields and rooms where they must find whatever it is that gives them their spark. In an area of darker sand surfaces, lost souls wander who have abandoned all sense of meaning. Speaking about zones, this is where Joe meets Moonwind (Graham Norton), a mystic who travels here while in that trancelike state we get into when daydreaming, focused on work we love, creating art, or in Moondwind’s case, spinning one of those giant arrow advertisements on a street corner. 

In the afterlife and then on Earth, “Soul” becomes one of those familiar family movies about an adult helping a child discover what matters. 22 has spent millenniums refusing to conform, even with soul mentors like Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali and Abraham Lincoln. While Docter and Powers use this kind of Pixar humor for some great laughs, they also take advantage to then go into some deeper territory. Joe and 22 end up in New York City as afterlife fugitives and have many gut-busting gags and mishaps. But the film also becomes a wistful take on the idea that in modern life we become obsessed and restless with our worship of ambition. It’s great to have dreams and struggle for them, and work without passion can be torture, but at times we miss the great pleasures of simply living. Unless Joe reaches jazz stardom he feels his life is meaningless, even when a struggling student realizes, thanks to him, she will stick with the trombone. There’s a wonderful speech given by Joe’s barber about wanting to be a veterinarian before discovering the personal joys of being a barber. 22 is also chained by what she sees as the system’s need to be boxed in. Kudos should be given to the filmmakers for somehow finding a way to quote George Orwell’s thoughts on the education system in the dialogue.

Both the afterlife sequences and the New York City adventures are given atmosphere and liveliness by a unique score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Ross and the Nine Inch Nails frontman have been gaining wide recognition as film composers after winning the Oscar for the “The Social Network.” Here they are nearly unrecognizable, combining low-key waves of ambiance in the Great Beyond moments with elegant jazz sounds for Joe and 22’s treks through the world of the living. An undercurrent in the movie is its tribute to jazz culture, to the music as an art form and a piece of American history. In a flashback sequence Joe’s father emphasizes the importance of knowing about jazz as one of Black America’s great musical contributions to the fabric of the country. Dorothea Williams looks like she deserves her own music biopic and the band sequences snap and crackle with style. 

“Soul” is a great time for younger viewers but for adults it touches on that sense of feeling the frustration of our big dreams. This is a rare animated film in how it tackles that subject. It’s about the mood of reaching a certain age and wondering if you’ll ever get to truly live off your passion. There isn’t even a recycled love story in this film. Joe’s heart is in his music, but “Soul” doesn’t always provide easy Disney answers. We all dream. Lucky are those who achieve those dreams, but for others it’s a hard road to realizing that simply having something to love can be enough of a gift. This is a pleasant movie without a dull moment. Part of its charm is in how it deals with what can be an unpleasant set of subjects. We fear the possibility of failure and we fear death. This is a special movie that knows how to talk about both.

Soul” begins streaming Dec. 25 on Disney+.