SOUL: Reflections On What Makes Us Who We Are

When it comes to great family films, they are generally seen as movies created to appeal to children, yet still offer the right amount of entertainment for the adults who accompany them.  Just take a look at some of Pixar’s most memorable projects: TOY STORY, MONSTER’S INC., CARS and FINDING NEMO.  They all fit in this category.  Well, every once in a while Pixar flips the script.  Like their film INSIDE OUT, Pixar’s new animated movie SOUL actually feels different.  It seems to be aimed at a more adult audience while still having enough in it for the kids they bring along to enjoy.  SOUL actively explores themes that the younger viewer may not be old enough to fully understand as they will not have experienced enough of life to relate to them. Also, some of the best moments center themselves on more adult references like Mother Teresa and George Orwell that may have kids scratching their heads going, “huh?”  That being said, the creative artists at Pixar are smart and haven’t forgotten who a big part of their audience is going to be. They made sure to create some great animation, colorful and funny characters (One of whom, 22, kids will be able to directly relate to) and some off-the-wall humor that will allow the younger audience to enjoy the ride along with their parents.  SOUL may work a little differently, but it’s still a really entertaining movie for both adults and kids alike.

SOUL opens with with the films lead character Joe, a frustrated middle-aged musician turned band teacher standing in a classroom while a group of uninspired students struggle through a sloppy rendition of “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.” Then, a student named Connie joins in with her trombone and everything changes.  As she plays Connie seems to disappear into the moment, letting the music consume her.  Even though Connie isn’t the focus of the story, she symbolizes Joe’s passion for music as he watches her play and begins to smile. Music is his life, a passion that stems from a time when his father brought him to a jazz club for the first time and he discovered what the movie refers to as his “Spark.”  All he really cares about is becoming a professional jazz pianist. Unfortunately, his journey towards this goal is slow going and seems out of reach, until later that day when he gets a call from a former student with an opportunity of a lifetime, to play with the great jazz musician Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett).  This seems like a dream come true.  Finally, a break.  But, of course, in the world of movies nothing is that easy and on his way home, floating on Cloud 9 from the news, life takes an unfortunate turn.  A near death experience sends his body into a coma and his soul onto a spiritual conveyor belt that leads to “The Great Beyond.”  Joe’s career as a musician is cut short just as it was beginning.  Desperate not to have this happen, his soul escapes the trip to the afterlife as he falls from the conveyer belt and lands in what is known as “The Great Before,” a place where new souls are prepared for their trip to a new life on earth.  Here he meets a sarcastic young soul named 22, who has no desire to live life on earth and together they begin a journey of self-discovery and realization that makes up the films central theme.

Not scared to take on some more thought-provoking questions regarding the meaning of life, Writer/Director Peter Docter (INSIDE OUT and UP), Writer/Co-Director Kemp Powers and Writer Mike Jones’ treatment of the themes in SOUL are interesting as the filmmakers take a story centered around their character’s pursuit of his dream, a story we as an audience have seen many times before and spin it in a fresh new way.  The realizations aren’t all that we would expect.  Movies and TV shows that tackle this kind of tale in a story meant for the whole family usually end with the lead character realizing that they should never give up on their dream and then showcases them succeeding with the emotional result of this success being both happy and complete.  SOUL is smarter than that though, bravely giving us a very different interpretation, at times concentrating on some of the consequences that come with spending too much time chasing your dreams, strengthening its themes by not being so obvious in its conclusions.  There is one moment in particular of emotional realization (which I won’t spoil here) that actually took me by surprise.  By staying a little more realistic emotionally, though still maintaining a positive tone the filmmakers find a way to explore these ideas with a little more originality and depth.

The characters that are introduced to us in SOUL are the main reason for movie’s success. Jamie Foxx (RAY and JUST MERCY), along with the writers and animators really infuse a lot of heart and (Dare I say it…) soul into the character of Joe.  Fox plays him as an everyman which makes Joe really easy to relate to.  We feel for Joe because we can see ourselves in him.  His passion for playing music is so much like our own enthusiasm towards the dreams we as individuals strive for, as are his real-life disappointments.  He represents what we all want out of life as we hope for our own dreams to come true while also showing us the other side of ourselves as we as adults become encouraged to look back on our own lives and what we may be allowing to pass us by.

As adult as the themes in SOUL may seem at times though, the filmmakers never forget the kids in the audience.  Joe’s soul is joined on its journey by a young soul named 22, played with wonderful energy by Tina Fey (MEAN GIRLS and MUPPETS MOST WANTED).  She gives 22 an often-funny and sarcastic tone that drives a lot of the humor in the film, while not taking it too far over the top so as to overshadow the character’s emotional moments.  22 is a character that the younger kids in the audience will be able to relate to because she, like most kids, is a little naive to what life has to offer.  Though written as a supporting character, 22 is as much a lead in the story as Joe.  She has just as much to learn about how wonderful life can be if you just give it a chance.  Her character arc is just as important, it just comes from a different viewpoint. 

The themes are further explored by the inclusion of some other wonderful characters as well.  They represent the different perspectives of the world around Joe and even though they have very little screen time they still offer a lot significance to what we are watching.  Joe’s mom Libba is an example of the kind of people in the world who don’t understand those who wish to chase their dreams. Voiced by Phylicia Rashad (CREED) Libba only wants what she thinks is best for her son, lecturing him on his need to stop dreaming and take on a real career with Job Security and Insurance.  There’s also Joe’s young student Connie, voiced by Cora Champommier, who is still wrestling with the importance of her dream and whether to pursue it or not.  Connie is in only two scenes but is still so important to our understanding of what chasing one’s dreams can entail emotionally when we as dreamers are first starting that journey.  Then there is my favorite character in the film.  Being in only one scene, his inclusion is really important to our understanding of Joe’s world and how he both sees and doesn’t see it.  This is Dez, voiced by Donnell Rawlings. Dez is a barber who at one time dreamed of being a veterinarian, but when life took certain turns he ended up cutting people’s hair instead.  Dez represents all those who may have not reached their goals but have still found a way to live a completely fulfilled life, something that Joe can’t seem to fathom.  The inclusion of these characters not only entertains us but really rounds out all the different angles of SOUL’s inner themes, making the story stronger and more thought provoking.

Being an animated film, it would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful artwork that makes up the interesting visuals in the movie.  The filmmakers effectively mix a variety of animation styles to create a very different feel and tone to the many differing worlds that the audience encounters.  From the more realistic look and colors used for the New York City locations, to the fantastical and cartoony style of the “The Great Before” to the more simplistic artwork of the path leading up to “The Great Beyond,” each style gives the different locations an individual personality that differs from each other.  The pathway leading up to “The Great Beyond” has some of my favorite visuals because even though the Souls on the conveyer belt are given the look of “The Great Before” everything else on this path to the afterlife is made up of very simplistic line art and starlike dots, proving that sometimes simpler is better when creating a particular feel for an environment.  The basic design of the path to the “The Great Beyond” gives it a hauntingly empty feel while also keeping it from feeling too uncomfortable and scary to the younger audience.  

The music is so important to the overall emotion of the film.  After all, Joe’s passion for music is what drives a lot of his key decisions. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wonderfully compliments the emotional impact of the characters as well as the tone of the different worlds we visit.  But it’s Grammy nominated Jon Bitiste’s jazz compositions that really stand out as they effectively accompany Joe when he becomes spiritually lost in the music that he plays and effectively represents his true passion. In fact, SOUL has inspired not one, but three albums: Disney and Pixar’s Soul Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Soul Original Score vinyl album and Music From and Inspired by Soul vinyl album. The digital soundtrack and both vinyl albums are available now.

As it is with most of Pixar’s movies, SOUL works best when it resonates on an emotional level. It effectively blends multiple animation styles, great characters and story, but at its heart is an emotionally charged look at what makes life really worth living while also making a statement regarding the stuff in life that someone might bypass while in pursuit of what they think of as their “Spark.”  SOUL is a real thought provoking experience that will remind adults that it’s okay to chase your dreams as long as you don’t forget what else life has to offer while teaching the younger audience not to let life pass them by and to enjoy all the discoveries that await them in their life ahead.  


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