It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Joe Gardner, the hero of the clever but squishy new Pixar feature Soul, dies just 10 minutes into the movie—straight through a New York City manhole, bam, there he goes. After all, the movie’s marketing makes it clear that this film, the most metaphysical yet from the most transcendent (and transcendental) of American animation studios, is about the journey of this frustrated jazz pianist’s soul beyond the veil. Of course Joe had to go.
This isn’t even Pixar’s first dalliance with the afterlife. Just a few years ago, in Coco, the studio vibrantly imagined a Mexican Land of the Dead, a grand city bustling with cheery skeletons. The place Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) arrives after his little accident is much more austere: a simple ramp in the midst of nothingness, as elegantly designed and context-free as an Apple product page, upon which blobby blue souls ascend to the Great Beyond. But Joe, who just preceding his accident had secured the gig he’s been waiting for all his life, is not having it. He escapes his fate, leaping off the ramp and landing in the Great Before. There, blank souls line up like the pegs in the Game of Life, attending “You Seminars” where mentors help them find their “spark”—the thing that animates them, fuels their excitement, and makes them want to live—before they are sent to Earth to be born.
In the Great Before, the administrators are kind interdimensional constructs who look like cubist paintings and speak in the calming, hard-to-peg accents of Richard Ayoade, Wes Studi, and Alice Braga. (“Call me Jerry,” they all say.) Meanwhile, on the ramp to the afterlife, another cubist bureaucrat, a hard-driven number cruncher (“Terry,” voiced by the Maori actor Rachel House) has noticed that a soul is missing and sets out to find it. The notion that life begins in a sterile seminar room and ends with your extinguishment being tallied on a giant abacus is an awfully dispiriting way to think about the soul’s great journey, but that’s befitting this movie’s philosophy-by-committee approach, a kind of watered-down New Ageism that’s basically inoffensive but also uninspired. Similarly, the movie’s conclusions about the value of living life to its fullest, appreciating the journey, etc., are so universally targeted as to be blandly familiar.
It’s in the movie’s most personal and specific storytelling beats—its interaction with Black culture—that Soul delivers more potent storytelling. Directed by Pixar veteran Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) and co-directed by studio newcomer Kemp Powers, Soul is the first Pixar feature with a Black protagonist. Joe’s difficult relationship with his mother and her high expectations is touching and, when it’s resolved, inspiring; the movie’s treatment of jazz as both a dynamic art form and a Black cultural touchstone is affectionate and energetic; a scene inside a Black barbershop transcends the cinematic familiarity of the setting to provide a loving look at a cultural institution that also pushes the plot forward.
Now, that’s all easy for me to say; I’m a white critic. My appreciation of that barbershop scene, for example, is complicated not only by my whiteness but by the character who joins Joe there: Soul No. 22, Joe’s mentee, a longtime holdout from the You Seminars who’s resisted becoming a living person forever. Soul 22 is voiced by Tina Fey, who’s very funny as a character who has never found her spark—who has predetermined that nothing on Earth could possibly be cool enough to justify getting off her ass and leaving her cushy pre-life in Limbo. (In a solid recurring bit, we meet all the previous mentors whose counsel she’s shrugged off, including Gandhi, Lincoln, and Mother Teresa.) It’s when Joe and 22 end up together in New York, of course, and 22 gets to eat pizza and hear music and hang out in that barbershop, that this wayward spirit begins to be energized by all that humanity might have to offer her. Which is all very heartwarming, sure, but Soul reads a little differently if you think of it as the movie where Tina Fey learns the meaning of life from a, let’s just say, magical Black man who had to die for the privilege. Anyway, I can’t wait to read the critiques by writers more qualified than I!
Soul feels, in the end, like a worthwhile Pixar experiment. Like Coco, it’s respectful of the culture in which it’s set without plundering it and lays the groundwork for future Pixar movies that can expand the company’s palette of heroes further. It’s packed with great jokes—a throwaway from 22 about why the Knicks suck doubled me over—and great music, from the jazz sequences (in which the animated characters’ fingers on piano keys and drumsticks match, incredibly, Jon Batiste’s compositions) to the Eno-esque Music for Afterlives that plays when Joe’s a soul, written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. (A Pixar movie scored by Reznor and Ross! Speaking of broadened palettes!)
Pixar’s best movies have always benefited from left-field emotional twists that help the films explore their themes from unexpected angles. Wall-E is a comedy about a lonely robot, until the robot falls in love. Inside Out is about a child’s joy, until we understand that what the child needs is to be sad for a change. For all its busy plot machinery, Soul never truly surprises us emotionally: Its pair of lost souls find each other and find reasons to live, hitting their marks along the way. Like every Pixar movie, it’s entertaining, sharp, and visually inventive. But it lacks the thunderbolts of creativity that make the company’s best philosophical inquiries so electrifying. It never quite finds its spark.