Quite a few of Pixar’s movies featuring people (not toys, cars, or emotions) deal with the concept of death. Up thinks about how to move on from the death of a loved one and still find adventure. Coco sings us through preserving the memories of a loved one and their lasting reputation. Now, Soul mixes depression, creativity, and death to ring us out of an awful year.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t want to give up on his dreams. But his job at a school is uninspiring and his mother thinks he should take the “practical” path. Just when he’s about to get a chance to achieve one of his dreams, he falls down a manhole and dies. BIG 2020 energy.
After escaping the Great Beyond, Joe ends up in the Great Before. It’s a place where souls are made and learn different skills and personality bits before their journey to Earth. When they’re done, they get a nice shiny badge and a skydiving trip to our green and blue home planet. Joe hatches a plot with apathetic pre-soul Number 22 (Tina Fey), who has been avoiding her own trip. After some literal soul searching, the pair find a way to get Joe to Earth; but they take the leap and land in more trouble. In a classic comedic switcheroo, Joe’s soul ends up in a cat, and Number 22 ends up in Joe.
Foxx and Fey are both excellent comedians with great chemistry together. Foxx is perfect as a man who is this close to his dreams, perhaps to the point where he can’t see the forest for the trees. And Tina Fey has long played snarky characters who are a bit bored of their surroundings. But I had to pause when the switch happens in the movie.
It has taken a long time to get a Pixar feature with primarily Black talent, including the lead character/actor, writer/director (Kemp Powers), and music consultants (Jon Batiste, Questlove, and Daveed Diggs) as well as Black women onscreen. Black viewers were frustrated with the amount of time Black characters like Tiana (in Princess and the Frog) and Lance Sterling (in Spies in Disguise) spend as humans in their respective movies. Writer and co-director Brian Kemp became aware of this concern during production and hoped that viewers would be satisfied with the amount of human Joe we see; but when Tina Fey voices the Black protagonist, I have to give the movie a bit of a side-eye.
Overall, the movie is fantastic with great moments of conflict, comedic relief from Number 22’s human body experiences, and the cute cat Joe. But I think the switching concept would have been less cringe if a Black actress voiced Number 22. Animation featuring Black characters has not reached a place where a decision like this doesn’t taint the movie a bit.
But as mentioned earlier, Soul is a beautiful and heartwarming film for viewers who’ve been inside for over nine months and can relate to Number 22 being enthralled by the simple joys of pizza and fall weather. Its discussions of life’s true purpose come at a perfect time for people who have been struggling with their careers and future.
And Number 22’s spiral into a depressed soul monster embodies many of our experiences of dealing with 2020. We’re all a bit like lost souls who are floundering in eternity. But it’s important to be like Joe: reach out, help pull others up, and remind each other of our sparks. They may not be what you think.