‘Soul’ review: A bold, slightly flawed ‘Soul’

DIRECTOR: Pete Docter
FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, Zenobia Shroff, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett
Available on Disney+

Jamie Foxx is the voice of Joe Gardner, a music teacher who finds himself on a literal soul-search in Disney/Pixar’s “Soul”, which starts streaming today on Disney+.

After another near-disastrous class where his middle school students shriek their way through another song (they play the Disney Logo Song over the actual opening logo at the beginning of the film…heh), Joe goes into a diatribe, explaining his love of jazz and what jazz means to him, which is mostly lost on every single student in his class, save for one. It’s at this point where Joe is offered a full-time teaching gig — something he’s awfully hesitant about because Joe doesn’t want to teach music for the rest of his life. He wants to play it.

His big chance comes when he he’s notified of an opening in a jazz quartet headed up by the legendary Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). After trying out and impressing the hell out of Dorothea, Joe is immediately hired, putting him on cloud nine — but, as he’s distracted by the euphoria, Joe falls into an open manhole, landing him on death’s doorstep, threatening his dream entirely. Wanting none of that, Joe fights for his very life in the “Great Beyond”, coming across a portion where new souls are sent to Earth to live life with the help of a mentor.

It’s here where Joe meets Jerry (Alice Braga — though I should note that every single authority figure in this place is named “Jerry”) who mistakes Joe for a “mentor” for some reason (you’d think that these beings were smarter than that) and assigns Joe to train “22” (Tina Fey), a lost soul who is so cynical, she wants nothing to do with Earth. When the two hit Earth, Joe finds out that he’s not dead yet and that his body is in a coma in a local hospital. What’s more, when Joe attempts to re-enter his body, he accidentally carries 22 with him and Joe winds up in the body of the “therapy cat” keeping Joe company while 22 ends up in Joe’s body which, of course, presents a problem when Joe’s supposed to be at that jazz club, playing with Dorothea in a few hours.

Here’s where I have issues.

“Soul” is the first Pixar film to have a Black lead character and the film attempts to present the viewer with a positive story about Joe and his life and his love for jazz — but it’s directed by Pete Docter, a white man, and he and co-writer, Mike Jones, are also white. The third co-writer is Kemp Powers (who also wrote “One Night in Miami”) and he’s the only black person in this three-man team. I’ve seen Pixar’s “Bao”, which was directed by an Chinese female and “Sanjay’s Super Team” which was directed by an Indian man. Both of those directors did an excellent job portraying their respective cultures…so why Pixar decided to go with a team of white people to write and direct a picture about the Black experience is a mystery to me.

I cannot speak for how much input Powers had during the writing portion of the production. Perhaps he was fully proud of what was produced here, but I find it more than a bit off-putting when 22, played by Tina Fey, a white woman, jumps into the body of a Joe, a black man, and basically becomes the hero of the film while Joe is relegated to being second fiddle in the body of the cat. To the film’s credit, Joe does point out 22 “sounds like a middle-aged white woman” so, perhaps, 22 is just a soul who’s chosen to “be” something she isn’t.

Still, the idea of a white actress in the body of a black character isn’t really the most comfortable one in this day and age and smacks of the same “White Savior” garbage we saw in films like “Green Book” and “Driving Miss Daisy”.

My other issue is with the “Great Beyond” bits which are a bit odd for a film marketed towards kids. I don’t have an issue explaining the idea of metaphysics to a kid — but will a kid want to hear things about souls “who become trapped between the physical and spiritual worlds in a place called The Zone”? I get the concept put forth but, first, I am not a fan of “woo” metaphysics and the entire idea of souls being processed and sent up and sent down and getting trapped is a bit too complex for the target audience. Even I found it needlessly complicated and, at times, dark, and it’s this element of it which weighs down an otherwise bright movie.

The rest of the film is visually beautiful. Pixar’s come a long way since the “Toy Story” days. New York City looks spectacular and the accuracy and attention to detail in spots is something to behold. The “Great Beyond” and the Picasso-like “Jerry’s” who run the “The Great Before” are awe-inspiring and gorgeous. And, though we never get to see what’s truly “Beyond” the Great Beyond, the tranquility of Beyond and Before has a way of erasing a viewer’s fear of death and provides them with a sense of peace and understanding that everything might just be ok.

Additionally, the club scenes and “The Zone” are spectacular, infused with life and a vibrant amount of African American culture which is due to the many Black artists and musicians Pixar consulted with during the making of the film.

My only wish is that the film’s script was tighter. There are some real moving, genuine moments between Joe and the people in his life, all the way from Libba, his mother (Phylicia Rashad), a seamstress who helps Joe with his club suit to Joe’s barber, Dez (Donnell Rawlings) — but, as I said before, it bothers me that “Joe” isn’t actually interacting with them as should be the case, and that it’s 22 in Joe’s body. And, yes, you could argue that the point was that a soul got to see things through a Black man’s eyes — but that never happens. The whole idea is that 22 is simply learning how to live in a human body.

The climax and resolution also feel a bit safe. Sure, this is a kid’s movie, but you’ve already showed them the Great Beyond and the dark side of “The Zone” where “lost souls wander, possibly forever”, so making the ending a little more bittersweet shouldn’t be out of the question.

Still, even if it isn’t fully accessible to everyone, there’s still a lot to like about “Soul”. It’s bold and daring for a kid’s film, a meditation of the meaning of life and what it’s like to be alive, something which cannot be said about most full-length animated fare out there, but it’s something which Pixar excels at.

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