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Soul is a spark of genius and joy: Movie Review


How’s this for a Christmas present: one of the biggest movies of 2020 and one of the most anticipated original animated films in history is available at last. Disney and Pixar’s Soul, now streaming on Disney+, is one of the most creative and sophisticated animated movies ever made.

You know what’s a Christmas miracle? In a time where digital entertainment at home often comes with overpriced fees or virtual “tickets”, this one comes free. All you need is a Disney+ subscription, and this is the buzziest film title they’ve had since Hamilton this past summer. And unlike September’s Mulan, there’s no added fee or premium access needed. Just login (to a paid subscription, yes) and enjoy.

Soul represents a lot of firsts for legendary animation studio Pixar: it’s their first African-American protagonist (and African-American co-director on a film) and their first non-theatrical release. It’s by far their most technically ambitious, but most interestingly, it’s also their first film that isn’t a comedy.

It’s still funny (at times very funny) but the story is deeply poignant, spiritual, intelligent and dramatic. The story is an ethereal adventure drama through two worlds; Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who’s always wanted to live his dream of being a professional jazz musician. Most of the film follows one eventful day in Joe’s seemingly average life.

After booking his first real gig with a legendary musician, he accidentally falls and, well, nearly dies. His soul is sent to an ethereal world made of “The Great Before” and “The Great Beyond.” And as his soul travels both the real world and this theoretical one, he’s about to learn the answers to some of life’s more powerful questions.

Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? The movie moves lighting fast, and that might make it harder for young children to follow what’s happening. It’s appropriate (and in many ways enjoyable) for all ages, though this is definitely the most nuanced and complex film in Pixar’s library. 

The benefit of that fast pace, however, is every moment is jam-packed with a sensory wonderland, especially when there’s so much to like about the film’s technical successes. The animation is sometimes so engrossing and beautiful it really transcends what animation can be - there are several shots that look real. Jaw-droppingly real.

Expectations for Pixar’s newest project have been sky high since it was announced years ago. After all, co-director Pete Doctor and his lead creative teams are the minds behind Oscar-winning hits Up and Inside Out - not just two of Pixar’s commercial and critical successes but both regarded among the best family films in history.

Does Soul live up to those expectations? Yes and no. Animation is a vehicle for the “soul” worlds to exist, but the scope, scale and tone of the movie otherwise feels more like a regular drama at the movies. It’s hard to know what audience will like this innovative movie most, but if you’re still reading this review, it’s probably the movie for you.

Foxx was a great pick to play Joe because he understand the music, the deep thematic base and the comedic sensibilities needed for animation. Film buffs will notice the several similarities between Joe Gardner and Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles in Ray.

Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

But the bulk of plot is actually Joe’s relationship with another lost soul named 22, voiced by Tina Fey. Together, Joe and 22 explore multiple worlds to learn about why everything is or isn’t. That journey centres on one question: is a person’s purpose their reason for living? Is it their, as they call it, “spark”? Or is it something else?

Music is also critical character, both in the jazz Joe is playing and in the incredible soundscape of the idealogical worlds. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Oscar winners for scoring The Social Network) lend their diverse talents here and there’s a good chance they’ll win again for this. Jon Batiste’s jazz arrangements are like a cherry on the sundae - perfection.

The screenwriters have done a flawless job connecting all the loose ends of all the metaphysic worlds they’ve created. It may take repeat viewings to verify this, but those are viewings I look forward to analyzing deeper.

Why is Soul so great? As we continue to live in a world ravaged by division, disease and uncertainty (especially as a health pandemic continues to define our daily lives), both Joe and 22’s journey is a clear story and lesson about what life really means - and what it means to be alive.

Cinemas may be closed, ruining an entertaining holiday tradition for many. But don’t cancel movie night for Christmas: Soul truly is an artistic gift. It’s a technical marvel and hugely entertaining, but it’s a movie that will make you truly grateful and hopeful to be alive. 

And celebrating life is exactly what we all need right now.


9 out of 10

PG, 1hr 46mins. Animated Family Drama Epic.

Written and Directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers.

Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove and Angela Bassett.

Now streaming on Disney+ for subscribers.

A short footnote: when Pixar films open in theatres, they traditionally open with a new Pixar short as well. Burrow, the newest short film, was supposed to accompany Soul in theatres, and it too premieres on Disney+ today. For the best experience, I highly recommend starting with Burrow and then continuing with Soul.