Disney is a company that hates to take risks, although they will sometimes give their Pixar division a little leeway. When it does great things happen, but often it is still reigned in. Although there are jokes and situations added in so that adults don't get bored the movies are still largely meant to bring in sticky-faced little ragamuffins. It's a typical problem with American animation; despite the success of television shows like South Park and Rick & Morty, most studios, and especially Disney, are afraid of touching anything with adult subjects.
Death and the afterlife is one of those items that fantasy and horror can often get away with, but make one wrong step in animation and the letters come pouring in. Either God is represented too much, offending the atheists, or not enough, offending the more extremist Christians. South Park and Family Guy may get away with it, but anyone watching and enjoying those shows knows there is going to be offensive content.
That was a concern going into Soul, especially when it became more and more obvious from the previews that, though it is PG and doesn't really contain anything outright offensive, it is not a children's cartoon. Pixar went ahead and flipped their usual of doing children's movies that adults can watch, and instead made a grown-up film that parents don't have to worry about explaining to their child's teacher when they start quoting the movie in class. It also manages to get around the big "G" question by not mentioning deities at all. The question about the existence of someone at the heart of it all never comes up, and in fact the actual afterlife is left to the imagination. What we are introduced to is what happens before life begins.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a high school band teacher that has just been offered a full-time position at a New York middle school. He is pressured by his mother (Phylicia Rashad) to accept it as she has been waiting for years for him to get a job that brings a steady paycheck rather than trying to succeed as a musician. His interest is jazz, and he's quite good at playing the piano, but as usual music (especially jazz) doesn't bring in the money. Still, he is offered another big break, replacing the pianist in a quartet led by Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a jazz saxophonist whom he admires. He is so overcome with joy that he doesn't watch where he is walking and suddenly ends up on the way to the Great Beyond.
Not wanting to be dead Joe tries to get back to Earth, only to end up in the Great Before, where new souls are given personalities and helped by mentors to find the final spark that will allow them to make the trip to Earth. He ends up with a soul named 22, who has been avoiding going to Earth for thousands of years, as she has no desire leave her life in the Before. However, she agrees to help Joe out, and introduces him to Moonwind (Graham Norton), a mystic who says he can get Joe back into his body. Unfortunately, things go wrong, with 22 ending up in Joe and Joe ending up in a cat. The rush is on to get switched back and, most importantly for Joe, to get to his big gig. Along the way they both discover more about life than they expected.
I think Disney should have made it clearer that this is for a grown-up audience, as a lot of parents complained that it was too boring for their kids. I have also seen people willfully misinterpreting the message as being, "Give up on your passions," when the message is clear that passion should be something that happens in life, and not something that results in obsession. Outside of the Great Beyond and the Great Before lies a desolate landscape inhabited by lost souls that have become obsessed with aspects of their life, sometimes turning the good into bad. Also, if one is expecting a clichéd ending to this, the good news is that directors and writers Peter Docter and Kemp Powers wisely let the story itself be resolved without going through the whole "where are they now" aspect.
While it doesn't touch on ideas such as reincarnation or creation, numerous souls seem to come back to mentor when needed, so it does appear that they retain some individuality in the afterlife. The only non-human souls we see in charge are abstract concepts, all named Jerry, except for an accountant named Terry (Rachel House) who pursues Joe to try and bring him back to make the count of souls correct. Since they are abstract concepts they are also presented as abstract art, leading to some quite interesting animation, particularly as Terry attempts not to be noticed on Earth.
Animation is top-notch, with Joe and other humans being designed in somewhat exaggerated forms so that it is clear they are animations and helping to stay out of that uncanny valley. Docter did the smart thing and co-directed with an African-American, with a number of black animators giving advice and working on the movie. The result is that the black characters are written and animated from a black point of view and don't end up being the caricatures that Disney and other animation studios have given us in the past.
The voice acting is excellent as can be expected, with Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey having some great chemistry even if they are cartoons. Many of the other people providing voices are known more for their actual acting than for voicing a cartoon, but none of it seems out of place or forced.
It is Pixar, so there are sappy moments, but nothing as bad as the imaginary friend in Inside Out. It has a wonderful jazz score to it, as well as some ambient music in the after and before from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Best of all, since this is aimed at an older audience, a lot of the bombastic passages that are in children's cartoons are missing. It manages to tell an uplifting story without going overboard, and manages to do it with characters we can all identify with.
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Rachel House, Graham Norton, Angela Bassett
Directors: Peter Docter, Kemp Powers