It’s a question humans have been trying to answer for ages, and it lays the thematic groundwork for “Soul,” a stunning new animated film from Disney / Pixar. The film is stuffed with complex ideas, a diverse cast, and impressive animation that sets the bar even higher for the studio that’s undeniably the best in the business.
Failed musician Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) spends his days teaching band to his class of disinterested middle school students. His father loved music, and Joe’s admiration for jazz grew from his dad’s influence. When a serendipitous opportunity yields the chance of a lifetime to play piano in a band at the coolest club in New York City, Joe jumps at the chance. But before he can hit the stage, a freak accident transports him to a cosmic realm known as The Great Before, a place where newly-minted souls are matched with a mentor to find that special missing spark before they’re sent down to Earth. Joe is paired with an aggravating and troubled soul known only as 22 (voice of Tina Fey), and is tasked with helping her find her passion and purpose in life.
As Joe and 22 embark on their new mission together, the pair begin to explore all of the great things that life has to offer. There’s science and art and mathematics and sports and food, and every little experience could be a defining moment in a new soul’s hopeful future.
There’s so much to love about this film. Not only is the animation impressive (even if the visuals do borrow heavily from “Inside Out”), but the surprising narrative arc ranks right up there with some of the best storytelling that Pixar has ever done. There are a million ways the plot could go, yet it plays out in the most unexpected and delightful ways.
The film respects those of us who love the art form of animation, not only in the sheer beauty and technical skill of the team of animators, but through the very adult story and themes. It’s refreshing and welcome to see animation aimed at grown-ups that has real meaning rather than just another disposable kiddie cartoon that doubles as a baby sitter.
While there are some elements that may entertain the kids, this is a movie that will pack an emotional wallop for anyone over 30. The film doesn’t shy away from the worst parts of adulthood, tackling heavy ideas like failure, grief, and disappointment. Very real human struggles are conveyed perfectly, like the desire to live a life that’s relevant, and the real fear that when you’re gone, your life will have meant nothing. There’s a beautiful sentiment that delivers a reminder to live life the fullest now, before it’s too late. It’s a message that stings even harder in the era of pandemic lockdowns.
Despite how somber all of this sounds, “Soul” is far from a depressing movie. In true Disney fashion, there’s an uplifting message that comforts like a warm, cozy blanket (and one that is achingly sincere): we can’t all be Nobel Prize winners, but we can change the world. No matter how minuscule or insignificant we may feel our lives are, we’re each making our own contributions to society in our own unique way, even if many may feel they’ve never found their true purpose in life. It’s a beautiful ode to the pure joy of living, and it’s one of the very best movies of the year.