Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the musician who launches the plot of Soul after he falls into a manhole, is the first Black protagonist of a Pixar movie. Beyond that, he’s an adult with fairly ordinary problems, a far cry from the many Pixar heroes who are animals, robots, superheroes, and the like. A passionate musician, Joe teaches band at a middle school while waiting for the big break that might never come. Just as he’s invited to play with an all-star jazz act, a seemingly fatal mishap jolts his soul out of his body, and he spends much of the rest of the movie as a fuzzy blue creature, trapped in the Great Before and looking for a way back to his (comatose) human form. Soul has the aesthetics of a whimsical adventure, but its themes are very raw. In death, Joe is tangling with the thought that he’s left his life incomplete, without fulfilling the artistic obsession that always drove him.
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Docter has wrestled with “grown-up” themes before and managed to cram them into an easy-to-understand story arc. Up began with the emotional hammer blow of an aging character losing his wife before he embarked on a new adventure. Soul sets an even tougher challenge for itself by apparently killing its lead character within minutes. But Docter finds clever ways to travel between the heavens and Earth, using the odd, nonphysical world Joe finds himself in to teach valuable lessons about finding joy in life even as it disappoints us.
In the Great Before, Joe befriends 22 (Tina Fey), a soul in line to receive a human form who has a dim view of Earth, preferring to wait for eternity rather than enter our mortal coil. It’s the opposite existential crisis of Joe’s—he’s worried he didn’t do enough on Earth, while she’s disinterested in doing anything there at all. But despite strong vocal performances from both Foxx and Fey, their characters’ comedic interplay never quite hits the mark. Joe is so focused on trying to get out of the Great Before, and 22 is so exhausted by the mechanics of their spiritual way station, that the movie doesn’t take much time to enjoy the universe Docter designed.
That unusual world has the vibe of a hippie retreat from the 1980s, where encouraging, anything-goes affirmations about mental wellness and balance have been merged with a vaguely corporate business structure. The Great Before is administered by two-dimensional scribbles with names like Jerry (Richard Ayoade) and Terry (Rachel House), unfinished-looking motivational beings goading soul blobs into self-actualization before their one-way trip to Earth. While the 3-D animation of Pixar films often feels samey and bland, Docter plays with the medium to lend a sense of genuine chaos and unpredictability. On top of the more grounded animation of the real world, the abstract fluffiness of the Great Before, and the wiggling doodle forms of Jerry and company, Soul also portrays the afterlife as a giant inkblot, a mysterious void that the dead enter and never return from.