Soul is a thoughtful animated family film with a tender nature, some sweet laughs, and an even kinder heart.
Animated films with an African-American cast are unheard of from the studio system. In the last few years, you have had two notable films that animated a person of color in the lead role. Will Smith voiced Spies in Disguise last December. Then there was one of the most acclaimed animated films of all-time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, that featured a young biracial son of an African American father and a Puerto-Rican mother. If you run a search of animated films starring persons of color (POC), a little over thirty come up. Read that again. Thirty. Most of them, mind you, are considered racially insensitive. So, the time has come for a major player, Disney, to make a change with Soul, a majority of whose characters are POC.
Peter Docter, the man behind such Pixar classics as Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside, brings us a story of Joe (played with a swelling heart by Jamie Foxx), a jazz piano musician and music teacher, who has never been given an opportunity to play on the stage. His luck suddenly changes when a former student, Curly (played by Questlove), brings him in for a tryout with legendary musician, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).
After massaging the keys in a jaw-dropping solo performance, Dorothea hires him for one night. Unfortunately, he falls through an uncovered manhole after leaving the tryout. Now, Joe is in a coma, and his soul is transported to the Great Beyond. There, he meets soul 22 (Tina Fey), a naïve being that has a narrow view of what life has to offer. From there, Joe must team up with 22 to travel back to the Great Before, to get back to his human body and fulfill his passion for playing jazz on the stage with one of the greats.
The film has a terrific cast, featuring Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi, and Graham Norton in supporting roles. While the script isn’t necessarily deep, it does have a nice sense of Jazz history within the African American community. This gives the animated film a stronger sense of individuality than most Pixar efforts. The walks through Fall in New York City in neighborhoods that are a mix of faces and personalities are refreshing; you won’t see any white picket fences, with white faces, and a white dog playing in a front yard here. The faces are diverse, the personalities are distinct, and this notch in the Disney animated bedpost distinguishes itself amongst Pixar’s legendary filmography. This, along with the abstract world created within the Great Beyond, makes Soul one of the most distinct-looking films they’ve ever had.
The script, however, does downplay most of its jokes with more cute observations than belly laughs. When it does have a chance for a home run hit, it doesn’t miss as it tends to foul off the pitch. For instance, when souls are switched on the Great Before with a cat, there is an opportunity to show an argument that would create laughs. Instead, it shows one character yelling, when Joe should have been arguing back. This would have created an absurd scene for onlookers and the viewers at home. Though Docter’s film is so thoughtful, the jokes are really beside the point entirely.
Soul, like many films this year, was given a prime release date over the summer. It was then moved to November because of the pandemic. Then, Disney made the decision to debut it on Disney Plus for a major holiday release on December 25th. Which, with the current uptick in a second wave, is nice for families to have an opportunity to watch this holiday season. It’s quite the family entertainment. It has a script that is thoughtful, even pensive. Especially about life and why we won’t grab happiness.