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The Soul of brilliant animation

The Pixar movie by Peter Doctor does not quite rise to the level of Up or Inside Out, but is light years ahead of the rest of the pack.

A scene from the movie "Soul." (CNS photo/Pixar)

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In the 2000s, every Pixar movie was a masterpiece. That magic waned, but Soul is a return to former greatness, the best Pixar film since 2015’s Inside Out, which – not coincidentally – was the last time Peter Doctor had a go in the director’s chair. Doctor’s style is so distinctive his pictures can be considered a subgenre in themselves. They feature unlikely protagonists who grapple with essential questions of purpose and existence; in this vein, Soul is probably his most “Doctorish” to date. It does not quite rise to the level of Up or Inside Out but is light years ahead of the rest of the pack.

Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a disillusioned middle school band teacher in his 40s who is still chasing his dream of being a professional jazz pianist. He finally lands a gig with a prestigious group only to die in an accident hours later. He “wakes up” as a small, bluish blob about to enter “the Great Beyond.” Determined to not miss his chance, Joe’s soul escapes the divine escalator and winds up in “the Great Before,” a place where new spirits go through a training course to construct their personalities prior to being born on earth.

In this strange land, Joe befriends #22 (Tina Fey), a soul that for centuries has alluded embodiment. “Is all this living really worth dying for?” she complains. Through a series of complicated actions that I still can’t figure out, Joe and 22 finally reach earth—but in the wrong bodies. 22 lands in Joe’s body—previously comatose—while Joe’s soul enters a hospital therapy cat. Thus, Joe-Cat must teach 22-Joe how to successfully navigate his first big performance with the happy side effect of showing 22 the joy of living.

Like other Doctor films, it sounds utterly ridiculous on paper, but works effortlessly onscreen.

As a theologian who specializes in cosmology, I was quite excited when I saw the trailer to this film. I was not disappointed. Like Tolkien, Lucas, or Disney himself, Doctor draws from a variety of religious traditions to create a mythology that is both new and familiar. The creation, progression, and ascension of souls is monitored by a series of angelic beings who look like Picasso paintings, move like geometric patterns, and act like well-meaning summer camp counselors. Soul also borrows heavily from the Mormon concept of a pre-mortal existence, where spirit children are created prior to conception then sent to earth as a form of testing. None of this is meant to be an actual argument for supernatural doctrine, just a fun way of attempting to describe “what no ear has heard, nor eye has seen.”

On several occasions, Pete Doctor has acknowledged his Christian faith and admitted that it actively forms his work. His films never explicitly mention Jesus, yet the quiet witness is evident beneath the surface. In all his works, the family holds center stage. Parents have a responsibility to support and nurture their children, which includes acknowledging their own failures. Children adore their parents even as they often learn things the hard way.

Joe’s love of music came from his father. Although unmarried, he passes that love onto his students. Doctor’s protagonist also realizes his worldly pursuits are not as important as the people in life. In the end, Joe gives up his chance to live his perfect life so 22 can have her opportunity. Like Jesus, Doctor preaches through storytelling.

When Soul was first unveiled in the last months of 2019, there was never a thought given to its portrayal of African American characters. Yet the madness of 2020 made its racial elements the elephant in the room at its premiere. There is little doubt that jazz music was chosen as a major theme due to its connection to the concept of “soul,” and thus it was natural to prominently feature African American characters. Yet because it contained black characters but featured Caucasians in its creative development, Soul became a target. There were accusations of “the white savior” complex and criticism of Joe’s otherworldly portrayal.

Not only are these skepticisms idiotic, they actively harm genuine racial harmony. Soul’s sin, apparently, is being a fantastic film about African Americans in which racial tensions are not part of the narrative. If there is one thing that unites racist groups and ideologies, it is that race determines identity. For us normal people—black, white, and otherwise—we could care less.

There isn’t much to criticize in Soul, but I would offer a word of caution: this is not a kids’ movie. The colors are muted, the themes complex, and the humor, while present, is understated. Few eight-year-old boys will empathize with Joe’s feelings of unrealized potential. Soul is a fantastic experience for anyone who has ever questioned their purpose, which is pretty much everyone.


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About Nick Olszyk 151 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

2 Comments

  1. “If there is one thing that unites racist groups and ideologies, it is that race determines identity. For us normal people—black, white, and otherwise—we could care less.” True enough to garner an “Amen!” Also see Ross Douthat for some caustic balancing points, but a good review.

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