- Directed by Pete Docter
- Written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers
- Featuring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Graham Norton
- Classification PG; 100 minutes
There is a lot of soul-searching in Disney’s latest offering. Bad pun, yes, but unavoidable, given that’s what the movie is about. If you watched the trailer and thought this was a movie about soul music – you know, the style of music that combines gospel, R&B and jazz – well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
There is a lot of soulful music – composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and original jazz compositions by Jon Batiste – underscoring the story, and an amazing repertoire of musicians who consulted on the project, including Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Yo-Yo Ma. The music is solid. But the central thesis of Soul is the question: What is it that makes you who you are? Now that’s a heavy topic, and maybe not what many people are expecting from the same guy who directed Inside Out and Up.
My kids had seen the trailer and wondered whether they would get to watch the screener with me. When I replied in the affirmative, they squealed in delight – especially when I allowed them to stay up waaaaaay past their bedtime to watch it with me. (It’s pandemic days, so what’s normal anyway?) However, halfway through Soul, my eight-year-old son decided the movie wasn’t for him and sort-of watched it, unable to completely ignore it either. My 10-year-old daughter, on the other hand, watched it contemplatively. My kids are into music, so I get why they were hooked. There is a mesmerizing quality to the movie.
It tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher in New York with a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, he gets offered a full-time position as a teacher. On the other hand, a former student, Curley (Questlove), hooks him up with an audition with legendary jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – and Joe gets the gig.
Lost in his music, however, Joe takes a misstep in the streets and ends up at the Great Before, the place where new souls get their personalities and find their spark before arriving on Earth. A series of events leads Joe to become a mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul whose previous mentors have ranged from Archimedes to Muhammad Ali. No one can convince her of the appeal of the human experience. As he tries to get back into his body and answer 22′s questions about life, Joe starts to realize some of his own truths.
Soul is marvellous on many fronts. Even if it doesn’t quite capture the live-wire energy of Foxx, Disney animators have done a wonderful job creating New York, reflecting the city’s many diversities in sumptuous details. I enjoy Graham Norton as a talk-show host and think he’s a brilliant addition, along with other supporting actors. (Unlike another British talk-show host, *cough* James Corden *cough.*)
I hope there are liner notes for the music; the sound and visual design are ethereal at times. And there are some other neat little touches: a line of Inuktitut voiced by Canadian singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac; a line in Korean spoken by Esther K. Chae; a name tag written in Hindi that I could read. There are also several written-for-adults jokes, including Drakkar Noir and Tetris references.
However, I am still trying to figure out if Soul measures up as a family movie. My son found aspects of it sad and scary, especially the plot line involving Lost Souls. My daughter got that the movie was about figuring out the purpose of life, but the deeper philosophical questioning eluded her. So do I, as a parent, dive in on those discussions?
The credits indicated that the filmmakers also consulted many faith and cultural leaders. However, those aspects of Soul border on pop psychology. Unlike other films, where I can talk about fairies or gods or anthropomorphic animals as representations of the human condition, Soul’s amorphous – and frankly bland – belief system is tricky territory for me to navigate as an atheist parent.
So maybe I will find other sources to help me answer my kids’ philosophical questions and stick with Soul’s musical explorations. Those, most definitely, were transcendental.
Soul is available to stream on Disney+ starting Dec. 25.
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