Film Review: ‘Soul’: Consistent Pixar Quality But Not Entirely Harmless for Kids

January 6, 2021 Updated: January 7, 2021

PG | | Animation, Adventure, Comedy | 25 December 2020 (USA)

Pixar would appear to have knocked another one out of the park. It’s nice in this day and age to have a product that doesn’t decline quality-wise, but maintains its standards or even evolves. “Soul” maintains Pixar’s integrity of quality, while pushing the envelope on two fronts.

One might define Pixar’s brand as kid cartoons that explore the profoundly philosophical, theological, ontological, metaphysical, and spiritual. What a concept—who does that? Pixar does. The company provides a cornucopia of food for thought. However, attempting to explain the mysteries of the universe is not without a certain risk, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

Two Fronts

“Soul,” as most Americans can likely intuit from the title, is the first Pixar film to feature a predominantly black cast, much like the predominantly Mexican world of “Coco,” before it. So that’s front number one.

man at piano in front of crowd in "Soul"
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) living his dream, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

And while the inclusivity is nice, and it’s a fun idea to have different cultures step up and tell a tale from their own unique perspectives, Pixar’s subject matter always transcends and is ultimately, just, you know, about humans. And again, not just physical reality stuff, but the huge, gigantic questions.

“Soul” gets even more philosophical, theological, ontological, metaphysical, and spiritual than ever before, so that would be pushing the envelope on front number two.

However, I submit that Pixar’s overstepping its usual thoughtful considerations of the big questions, and that there’s something more subversive, if unintentional, going on here. “Soul” paves the way to atheism; it makes an atheistic interpretation of the cosmos comfortable, and I have a problem with that when it comes to children. Again, more on this later.

What Goes On

Pixar debuted “Soul,” it’s 23rd film, on Christmas day 2020 (streamed on Disney+). It opens with the usual Disney castle, except the theme music is hilariously out of whack, like it’s being played by a grade school orchestra—much woodwind tweedling, string-section scraping, and brass-section honking.

Aaand … the curtain rises on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a well-intentioned, somewhat goofy middle school orchestra teacher, conducting his young would-be musicians. The setting is a cozy, highly detailed cartoon rendering of Manhattan.

Turns out, the teaching gig is Joe’s day job; he’s also an aspiring and extremely talented jazz pianist. After years of unsuccessful auditioning, Joe finally gets his big break: a shot at playing with famous jazz-sax diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and her quartet.

man points at sign in "Soul"
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) anticipating his musical debut, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

Joe’s audition for Dorothea, when he utterly loses himself in his music, might be the best scene in the whole movie. Anyway, Joe—absent-minded professor that he is—rushes home euphorically with his head in the clouds, all the while nearly getting hit by cars and run over by buses. Joe’s luck, however, eventually runs out, and he plummets down an open manhole and gets knocked the heck out.

man crossing street in "Soul"
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) not paying attention to where he’s walking, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar AnimationStudios/Disney+)

The Great Beyond

He wakes up a mere ghost of himself. (It’s a little bit funny that somebody wrote a black character that spends most of the movie as a Casper-like white ghost, but in this age of insane finger-pointing and cancel culture, let’s not think too deeply on that one, shall we? Let’s just chalk it up to an amusing irony.) Anyway, there’s ghostly Joe with a bunch of other human souls on a conveyor belt to … “The Great Beyond.”

Joe’s physical body is now in a coma in the hospital, but Joe’s soul’s not having any of that Great Beyond stuff and takes a swan dive off the edge of the escalator. He lands in a plush, gently hilly, pastel-blue-colored place. This is a pre-birth area, where souls prepare for their next human incarnation.

other dimensional landscape in "Soul"
“The Great Before,” where souls prepare for earthly life, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

It’s called “The Great Before,” and it’s peopled by strange, graceful, two-dimensional, er … gods? Maybe? Mentors, they’re called, whose appearance was likely assigned by the Creator to Picasso. They’re sort of camp counselors in charge of helping souls discover their “spark.” What’s a spark? It’s the quality that will make a new soul appreciate life. I would have called that a “talent” myself, but OK—let’s go with spark.

two-dimensional figures in another dimension in "Soul"
Mentors give advice to 22 (Tina Fey) in The Great Before, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

Joe, posing as a Swedish psychologist (to hide the fact that he doesn’t belong in The Great Before), ends up in a Mentor position and is assigned soul number 22 (Tina Fey). She’s still up here because she can’t find her spark even after having been mentored by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, all of whom she frustrated greatly with her annoying, noncommittal dithering.

two figures look down at planet earth in "Soul"
Soul 22 (Tina Fey, L) and the soul of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) prepare to descend to earthly existence, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

Does Joe get out alive? Does he reincarnate? Like, does he reincarnate haphazardly? Like tumbling down to earth together with 22 in such a fashion that she ends up in Joe’s body in the hospital, and Joe’s soul ends up in … well, I can’t say. That would be a spoiler.

So Many Hefty Spiritual Themes!

The moral of the story is that Joe was so hyperfocused on his jazz career that he neglected his students, missed the life lessons from his common-sense-laden mom (Phylicia Rashad), and bored his barber silly with his nonstop nerd-yakking about jazz.

barber cuts man's hair in "Soul"
Dez the barber (Donnell Rawlings) cuts Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) hair to get him ready for his musical gig, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

Joe just wants his time in the spotlight; he doesn’t want to end up like poet Thomas Gray’s line: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.” Joe’s a lot like Burt Lancaster’s “Moonlight” Graham in “Field of Dreams,” a baseball player who just wanted to step to the plate and look that major league pitcher in the eye and see if he had what it takes to swat one outta the park. Moonlight wanted it so bad that he came back from beyond to the Field of Dreams to do just that.

And that’s why Joe puts up such a fuss about dying unfulfilled. But isn’t that the case with all highly talented people? Talent will out. Or at least it wants to die trying, to the exclusion of all else in life. So that’s your one extreme.

man at piano, woman with saxophone in "Soul"
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, L) and Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) get ready to play jazz, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

At the other extreme, you’ve got 22 who doesn’t know what she wants. She won’t pick one thing but flits about like a butterfly, only touching down for a couple of seconds here and there. Very unfulfilling too.

Ultimately, this presentation of extremes is a lesson in learning to achieve balance and walking the path of the Middle Way. How’s that done? It’s a Capra-esque message. In the end, we should cherish every waking moment because then it’s a wonderful life. And then it doesn’t matter if you’re supertalented or are having a dilettante-type incarnation; you can live in the moment and enjoy life regardless.

man with guitar in subway in "Soul"
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, R) appreciates a street musician, in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

Loads of Fun, But…

“Soul” talks about The Great Before and The Great Beyond, which ultimately is a setup to talk about the concept of the true bliss of existence being found only on earth. In other words—heaven on earth. Which happens to be, in my opinion, a conceptual rotten fruit born of  modern times.

The problem with all this world-building, or concept-building, or attempting to blithely explain away the massive questions of life with an amalgamation and eclectic hodgepodge of clever ideas gleaned from various spiritual and philosophical paths, is that only adults can shake this kind of thing off as mere entertainment. This kind of entertainment goes deep for children, and that’s a problem.

two souls meet in "Soul"
One of the three Mentors (R), who are all named Jerry, introduces Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, L) to 22 (Tina Fey), in “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

“Soul” focuses on some other dimensions and shows some otherworldly scenes, and there’s a slight sense of wonder and fun, but there’s no sense of sacredness or divinity. The Picasso “gods” are cutesy, but this is probably harmful for children. I’m guessing that Christian crowds will have a problem with “Soul.”

My understanding is that all true art is uplifting to the soul and meant to portray the divine with the intent of getting humans to stop focusing on earthly existence and motivate them to get back up out of here and back to heaven. So one could make the case for “Soul” (again, most likely unintentionally) planting seeds of atheism; it could conceivably root atheism subconsciously in a child’s soul, early. “Soul” makes an atheistic interpretation of the cosmos comfortable.

To be really helpful for kids, “Soul” needed more content about good and evil, right and wrong, and the real reason for human existence, which is not about finding a “spark,” but which many traditions define as doing what’s right in this life, and dealing with the repercussions of what we ourselves do wrong.

Divinity doesn’t need to mean heavy-handed religiosity. But some redemption and some reverence is a more healing and wholesome approach for children, to my mind. There is no heaven on earth, although many would beg to differ. Heaven exists only in heaven, and enjoying fame, fortune, the thrill of being the best, or even the satisfaction of realizing one’s talent potential is not the purpose of human life. Unless it’s used in service for a cause greater than oneself, it becomes merely the current American major distraction to finding the true meaning of life.

woman with black and white dress, man with hat in "Soul"
Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx at a function for “Soul.” (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios/Disney+)

Director: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Starring: Tina Fey, Jamie Foxx, Angela Bassett
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 25, 2020
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch