WARNING: Spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk.
I’d been meaning to get around to watching Soul (2020) since it came out last year, but for some reason I’d never quite found the time. Hearing it won an Oscar this year was finally the push I needed to watch the film, and it was an unexpected surprise.
Before I watched it, every time I’d asked someone if they liked the movie they’d do one of two things: the majority would gush about how much they loved it and how deep it was, while others would grumble about how it wasn’t to their taste and that it was boring. After watching the movie with no prior knowledge of the plot, I understand why it was so polarizing — but I definitely fall into the first camp.
For me, the amazing thing about Soul was how it told an adult’s story and shared a message adults really need to hear in the delightful and visually breathtaking medium of a great animated movie.
The film follows a middle school music teacher named Joe Gardner who lives and breathes jazz music, but has never gotten his lucky shot. We see him grappling with a job offer for a full-time teaching position, wondering if stability is worth giving up on his dream. Then, out of the blue, he gets a chance to play piano with a famous jazz quartet.
Finally, Joe’s going to have his shot! But on the way there, he dies. We follow him on his journey as he travels through the Great Beyond trying to get back to Earth to live out his dream. At the same time, he finds himself trying to figure out what the meaning of life really is and why he really needs to go back.
I understand how if you’re going into this movie expecting a Cars or a Toy Story theme you might be blindsided by a more introspective, grownup movie exploring the meaning of life. But if you take Soul for what it is, I think you’ll be far from disappointed.
The film is Pixar’s first film with a Black lead protagonist, and it’s amazing to finally see so many Black characters on screen in beautiful animation, voiced by incredible actors. The film’s diversity is also reflected in its supporting characters, and I was delighted to hear different accents and see Pixar’s movies finally move towards accurately representing their audiences.
One thing I did note here is that Joe gets transformed into a more nebulous blue “soul” shape fairly early on in the film. After audiences have gone so long without seeing Black representation in Pixar films, it felt disappointing to see this fully-realized, dynamic character swapped out for a blue blob.
As a whole, the film’s animation was breathtaking — the characters practically leapt off the screen, and the way that it played with hues was beautiful. There’s one really cool sequence that stood out to me, when Joe is falling in the Great Beyond and he seems to warp and shift through dimensions.
As for the overall theme and message of the story, I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. Everyone needs a reminder to stop and enjoy the countless tiny moments, the magical sparks that truly make life what it is and worth living.
I thought the scene where Joe realizes this was incredible — we get to see those moments in gorgeous animation, from the moment when waves crash over his feet at the beach to fireworks in the night sky to moments he spent with his dad as a kid. It’s a transcendent, emotional scene that really encompasses the message of the film.
I do wish that we’d gotten to come to this conclusion through more time with Joe. In the film, Joe ends up helping 22, a yet-to-be-born soul that doesn’t want to come to Earth. Perhaps it would have done well if the story had focused more on Joe’s development and interactions with the world around him instead of on this secondary character.
Joe was an interesting, likeable character with a complex internal struggle. I think he could have come to the lesson without his journey revolving around the belligerent Soul 22, who I didn’t really have a reason to care about or root for.
Overall, I found Soul heartwarming and beautiful. I really appreciated the many different elements that made the film what it was. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed the message as much if it’d been in the package of some pretentious live-action movie.
After watching Soul, I can unequivocally say that adults need more kids’ movies.