SDG Reviews ‘Soul’: Going Beyond (and Before) ‘Inside Out’

Pixar head Pete Docter is back with another increasingly rare throwback to Pixar’s glory days, this time a fanciful exploration of the foundations of personhood and what makes life worth living.

Jamie Foxx stars in the latest Pixar flick.
Jamie Foxx stars in the latest Pixar flick. (photo: Pixar/Disney)

Pete Docter’s Soul is Pixar’s third straight original feature, following Coco and Onward, that is explicitly about death, finality and, in some way, what lies beyond.

The convergence of these three films brings to a head a striking preoccupation with death that began, perhaps, in Toy Story 2, with Woody’s parental anxieties about wearing out (“Toys don’t last forever”) and being literally left on a shelf — a phrase that idiomatically evokes the anxieties of elderly parents of being cast aside and neglected by their grown children. (Underscoring the point is the nightmare image of an apathetic Andy discarding broken Woody, dropping him onto a heap of playing cards that are all the ace of spades, beneath which is a waiting trash can full of broken toy parts sucking him down into oblivion.)

Even more overtly, the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, with the toys taking one another’s hands, was a wordlessly eloquent expression of solidarity in the face of the inevitable.

Death as a plot point or a part of life is simply a part of storytelling, and it has been part of U.S. feature animation since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi

Death as a thematic concern — recurring or sustained existential angst in the face of mortality or the permanence of separation from loved ones — is something different, and it has become particularly characteristic of Pixar.

The death of Nemo’s mother, Coral, in the prologue of Finding Nemo is basically a plot point, an inciting incident behind Marlin’s helicopter-parent anxieties. The death of Carl Fredrickson’s wife, Ellie, in the prologue of Up is different. Up is essentially about grief in various forms, both healthy and morbid; about preparing for death.

In a more low-key way, Cars 3 was about growing older and passing the torch to a younger generation — pointedly, a more diverse generation. Then came Coco, Pixar’s first film with a nonwhite cultural setting; and, now, comes Soul, Pixar’s 23rd feature, the studio’s first feature with a Black protagonist and a predominantly Black cast. 

It’s the best and worst day in the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged musician teaching middle school to pay the bills while trying to make it as a jazz pianist. In his excitement over getting the gig of his dreams — playing onstage with acclaimed jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) — he takes a careless step and winds up on the path to the Great Beyond. 

(Although Joe’s accident occurs less than 10 minutes into the film, it’s the kind of thing I prefer to avoid mentioning if I can — heck, I reviewed Up without mentioning the word “balloons” — but for this review I can’t indulge my most spoiler-averse sensibilities, so caveat lector.)

Joe’s soul — a luminescent, blobbish figure with Joe’s distinguishing fedora and glasses — finds itself on a conveyor belt in an inky blackness, moving toward a vast white glow. (It’s an image overtly reminiscent of the escalator to heaven in the 1946 British classic A Matter of Life and Death.)

As souls approach the shining frontier, they float up off the conveyor belt, losing their visual distinctives and vanishing with a brief buzzing sound that (I hate to say it, but I must) made me think of a bug zapper. 

Visually, the image of shining souls drawn to an immense light is far more suggestive of some transcendent higher reality than the eschatology of Coco, in which the skeletal dead, once they are finally forgotten on earth, are wracked with tremors and fade into dust. And it’s significant that where Coco speaks alarmingly of “the final death,” Soul speaks of “the Great Beyond.” Still, that zapping sound nearly ruins it.

Other souls seem content or even excited to go into the light. Joe, though, is obviously anxious not to move on just when he feels the life he wants is finally beginning. In his efforts to go against the flow, he somehow winds up in a third realm, neither Earth nor the Great Beyond, but the Great Before — also known as the “You Seminar” — where preexistent souls are prepared for life on Earth.

Here, Joe finds himself saddled with mentoring a jaded preincarnate soul (voiced by Tina Fey) known simply as “22,” who, despite being mentored by the best — and I mean the best — has never found her “spark” or special passion forming the final component of one’s personality and has no desire to live on Earth.

And here, rather than in some final judgment on the threshold of the Great Beyond, a stunned Joe is confronted with the sum total of a life that he himself can only judge as meaningless.

The director of Inside Out, Up and Monsters, Inc., as well as chief creative officer at Pixar, Docter is the only surviving member of Pixar’s original brain trust who has yet to disappoint creatively. (Lasseter’s biggest creative fail is Cars 2. Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird both stumbled with mediocre live-action sci-fi efforts — respectively, John Carter of Mars and Tomorrowland — before running back to Pixar for lesser sequels to their biggest hits, i.e., Finding Dory and Incredibles 2.)

While it doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop of Inside Out, Soul is cut from the same creative cloth. Visionary, stylistically inventive, grand in scope and ambition, it’s a true event film in everything except, alas, its small-screen debut on Disney+. 

A decade ago, “a Pixar event film” would have been a redundancy, like “an action-packed Jackie Chan movie.” Today, alas, it’s is very nearly synonymous with “a Pixar movie directed by Pete Docter.”

Perhaps that’s giving short shrift to Coco (from Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich), a film with a visual grandeur and world-building panache not unlike Soul.

But Coco — in addition to gutting its ostensible Mexican Catholic milieu with its “final death” business and scrupulously omitting any reference to prayer in connection with Day of the Dead commemoration of loved ones — relied too heavily on two of the most exhausted tropes in family films of the last decade: Junior Knows Best and The Secret Villain.

You could almost say there’s an echo of Junior Knows Best in Soul, if that term can apply to a middle-aged man still facing the disapproval of his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who runs a tailor shop, over his dreams of succeeding in the music world rather than pursuing a safe career with a pension as a music teacher.

But Soul subverts the tropes as much as it relies on them. 

Like many Pixar films, it’s an odd-couple road movie and a race against time as Joe has mere hours to resolve his increasingly complicated situation vis-à-vis his corporeal status and his relationship to 22 in order to make his all-important gig with Dorothea Williams. It’s also a Ratatouille-esque tale of pursuing one’s true artistic passion against all odds — except that, ultimately, it’s not, and this is what derails the tropishness of the film’s other tropes.

An important scene takes place, fittingly, at the local barbershop, where Joe has an illuminating exchange of sorts with a bushy-bearded, massively built barber named Dez, whom Joe describes as “born to cut hair.”

The conversation reveals unexpected sides of all participants, in the process hinting that Joe may have almost as much to learn about life as 22. Soul is the most persuasive statement of an idea that Pixar has been noodling since Monsters University: the idea that a life that doesn’t go the way you dreamed can still be worth living. 

Even more boldly than Inside Out — which brought us into a metaphorical visualization of a child’s inner world, including a formally inventive excursion into abstract thinking — Soul presses Pixar animation to the limit in imagining a world of metaphor beyond corporeality. 

Drawing inspiration from the overtly flat, linear animation style of 1960s Disney shorts — not unlike Fantasia 2000’s Rhapsody in Blue sequence and Pixar’s own “Day & Night” short — Soul whips up a friendly world overseen by cheery, ontologically ambiguous counselors who are all called “Jerry” (voices include Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi) whose look is part Picasso and part UPA short.

There’s also a bureaucratic, bean-counting (or soul-counting) antagonist — not quite a Jerry but a Terry, voiced by Maori actress Rachel House in a variation on her role in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople — who might also remind viewers a bit of Roz in Docter’s Monsters Inc., but without the surprise reveal.

The use of line, geometry, color and black and white in these sequences is formally groundbreaking in a way Pixar hasn’t been in years. 

Oddly, like Coco, Soul kept reminding me of a Pixar classic that is not about life and death: Ratatouille. Among points of contact here are colorful visual abstractions of nonvisual sense experiences (much better here than in Ratatouille) and the slapstick of one mind attempting to remote-control another person’s body (very funny in both). 

I was also reminded of Up as Soul takes us to a fourth realm: the “zone,” the realm “between the physical and the spiritual,” where creativity takes you when you’re “in the zone.” Those “in the zone” float above a perilous sea of dark sand in which they may become ensnared, becoming “lost souls” mired in obsession. Somewhere among those “lost souls,” surely, Up’s Charles Muntz wandered for decades. (And, perhaps, Syndrome as well, since we see the devastating potential of thoughtless or callous words from one we look up to as a mentor.)

Soul has the sharpest Pixar screenplay in years, with a screwball vibe and consistently witty use of cutaway gags. So much of it works at such a high level.

What keeps it from achieving greatness?

Partly, I think, it’s the same tendency for schematization and rationalization that Docter brought to the inner world of Inside Out, where a child has exactly five emotions, five core memories and five islands of personality; where Riley’s subconscious fears are rational things like Grandma’s vacuum and Jangles the Clown, etc.

Souls in the You Seminar each get a little badge with so many slots, and personality traits are assigned like stickers. Then there’s one special slot for your “spark,” your special passion. No one gets to Earth without a spark, and, apparently, no one gets more than one. This is too neat, especially given the movie’s big idea.

We see how personalities are formed, but where do souls come from in the first place? Soul takes us to the very frontier of the Great Beyond, but can’t manage even a whisper of real spirituality or religious curiosity.

In a heartfelt conversation with his mother, Joe mentions church as the one context in which she appreciated his music. I appreciate that the Black church, which, like the barbershop, is an important landmark in Black culture and community, is at least referenced. And I appreciate that Joe, finding himself in a world beyond corporality, wonders aloud whether he is in heaven or “h-e-double-hockey-sticks.”

Yet is there no moment in Joe’s story where it would make sense for him to offer a prayer, a whispered plea, to God or the universe or whatever power is behind the Jerries?

Then there’s Joe’s early judgment that his life was meaningless, and the lack of closure at the end, which on one level I get is the point, but on another level … well, look.

Joe’s onetime student Curly (Questlove), who gets him his dream gig, tells him that Joe’s class was the only reason he went to school. Later, Joe plays a role, sort of, helping another gifted student on the brink of quitting decide that she really does care about music.

I’m not saying I wanted Joe to have an epiphany that he’s a middle-school teacher after all. But I wanted him to come full circle at least in realizing that, like Dez the barber, he hasn’t been wasting his life teaching middle school.

Caveat Spectator: Treatment of death with brief peril and mildly unsettling images; mild rude humor; fantasy depiction of spiritual realities, including preexistence of souls. Kids and up.