If 2020 needs anything to cap the year off on a positive note, it’s a good Disney/Pixar tale to give us all the warm-fuzzies and feels. Something out there to let us know that maybe, just maybe we’ll escape this hellscape of a year and look forward to a brighter future. But does Soul deliver on the Studio’s widely accepted standard operating procedure? Can we count on this film to lift our collective spirit? (See what I did there?) Let’s take a look!
Yeah, so, Soul … What is that?
Disney/Pixar presents a new story in a way that only they can. Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a down on his luck jazz pianist in New York City. Stuck in a job as a middle school band teacher, moments of inspiration that fuel Joe’s spark are few and far between.
But a twist of good fortune lands Joe his dream gig, playing in a jazz quintet with legendary saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett). Unfortunately, before he can play his first show, Joe falls into an open manhole on the streets of New York. (No spoilers here, it’s in the trailer).
Joe’s soul leaves his body and begins to ascend to the Great Beyond. Unsatisfied with this end, Joe’s soul searches for a way to return to his body (which lies in a New York hospital bed, clinging to life). Escaping the queue to the afterlife, Joe stumbles into the Great Before, a training center for new souls awaiting their earthly assignments. Joe poses as a mentor to 22 (voiced hilariously by Tina Fey), a snarky soul that has no interest in going to earth and has been bucking the system for millennia.
Joe and 22 formulate a plan to get his soul back into his body in time to play his first gig with Dorothea at the Half Note Club tonight, and shenanigans ensue! From this point spoilers abound, so I’m just going to leave it at that.
Everything in 2020 is controversial. So, What’s Up With Soul?
Just like practically everything else in 2020, Soul has not been without its controversy.
Full disclosure, I am a white guy, and I am married to a woman of color. Does this give me any kind of authority on the matter? No. But it does give me some perspective.
The complaints for Soul started with the first trailer. They are a compounded observation of Disney’s treatment of Black lead characters in the last 20 years or so. Most notably, Tiana of The Princess and the Frog and now Joe in Soul. Both are Black characters, leading a story based in Black culture. In both cases the established Black lead, as part of the plot, is almost immediately turned into… not a Black person. In Tiana’s case, she is turned into a frog for most of the film. Seemingly Soul took this same route in telling Joe’s story. As the trailer tells us, Joe essentially dies ten minutes into the film, and the story revolves around his spirit searching for a way back. The Black guy literally dies first…
The problem lies in the representational step forward of establishing Black-centered stories in Disney films, only to take the Blackness (at least visually) away from the character. Though the Black character is still technically there, Black people (and Black children in particular) watching to see someone who looks like them represented in a story from one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, are immediately robbed of seeing that “someone who looks like me” on the screen. Instead, they are offered a frog, or in this case, a floating, blueish wisp.
But, without spoiling any of the story, let me say that Soul does not follow in the same footsteps as The Princess and the Frog in this sense. We do see a lot more of Joe represented visually as a Black man throughout the film, though another plot point creates its own set of representational issues, which I won’t get into now because it will absolutely spoil the story.
Does this fix Soul’s perceived representational issue? Again, I have no authority on the matter, so I must leave that for you to decide. But I would encourage you to watch the film before picking one side or the other.
Who’s This Movie For?
As with any Disney/Pixar film, this flick is for anyone. The story and visuals are creative and beautifully executed. The animation is top notch, and the writing is heartwarming, fun, silly and even profound at times. The quality storytelling that we have come to expect from this company is certainly upheld in Soul.
What’s the Best Snack?
If I’m being cute, I’d say a big ole ball of cotton candy, just because that’s what the new souls in the Great Before remind me of. But even though we’re not experiencing this in a movie theater (the greatest way to watch a film, IMHO) the best snack with which to watch Soul is gathering the family around a giant bowl of fresh popcorn and some ice-cold sodas. Classic.
… maybe some Sour Patch Kids too.
What Should I Know Going In?
Look, I’m trying to establish a standard format for my movie reviews. This section was necessary for my last review of Mank. That’s one where you had to know some stuff before watching the film, otherwise you’d be totally lost.
But like I said, Soul is for anyone and everyone. No theological or occult education is necessary going into this story about what lies beyond our mortal coil.
Perhaps it helps to have some appreciation of jazz as a medium.
For My Money
I liked Soul. Though it is not without its issues, overall it delivers on exactly what you want from a Disney/Pixar story, and it makes a fine film to watch with the family on Christmas Day.
To be honest, Soul is not Disney/Pixar’s finest offering. To take nothing away, it is a good watch and I really did enjoy it. But if I’m browsing my Disney/Pixar library for a re-watch, I might pull Big Hero 6 or Ratatouille off the shelf before watching Soul a second time. I will watch Soul again, it’s just a little farther down the list.
But for a Christmas Day movie, I would definitely recommend this for Families and Disnerds alike. If you have enjoyed the company’s films in the past, this one will definitely tick the boxes.
Soul apparates exclusively on Disney+ December 25, 2020.