Pete Doctor is masterful at making audiences look inside themselves, whether that be our childhood or how we feel deep inside. He has this uncanny ability to make people feel better about who they were and who they have become. His latest effort, Soul, displays what it feels like when someone feels like they haven’t lived up to their potential.
Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), an accomplished jazz pianist who teaches band at a middle school. He has always had ambitions to play big gigs and become famous. One day a former student affords him that opportunity. The opportunity is to perform with Dorthia Williams, a powerhouse jazz saxophonist. On his way to the performance, he falls into a manhole and ends up in the Great Beyond and then proceeds to escape that and land in the great before where all souls are nurtured on their purpose before going to earth. The leaders of the Great Before mistake Joe for a mentor of souls, and he is tasked with helping lost soul 22 (Tina Fey) find what their purpose is.
This film does so much right with the character of Joe. He’s self-centered without being completely egotistical, and he has a passion for inspiring and enlivening those around him. Jamie Foxx vocalizes that enthusiasm well. It’s the most restrained performance I’ve seen from him. Tina Fey is likable as 22 because she’s still learning the world we all already occupy. I’m glad Docter and his team didn’t make 22 have a child-like curiosity because it gave Joe a challenge. How do you spark someone interested in nothing? The movie answers this by having Joe use his experiences to inform 22 of what she could have on earth.
Most movies about different forms of achievement go straight to why that person fails to reach their goal because Soul takes a different perspective and asks what motivates that individual. This allows that Pixar magic to shine through and give the movie more purpose. Much of that purpose is illustrated through music, which Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross crafted with piano arrangements by Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Baptiste. Without those compositions, the movie would have had less of an impact.
The only major issue with Soul as a film is that Joe’s self-centered nature can be a bit intolerable. He is so obsessed with the idea of jazz being his career, he openly neglects to support the dreams of 22. This is a plot point that, while believable, pushes the boundaries of realism closer to fiction than fact. For Joe to be a better character, there should have been a moment when he felt sad about his circumstances, but remembering past events before he fell in love with jazz guided him to what became his passion. This simple story correction would have given the story a better flow and a deeper emotional resonance.
Soul is an accomplished work about how we all grow and change while continually defining our purpose in life. Soul makes sure to remind us all of the small moments always have an equal impact concerning the bigger moments we all commonly celebrate. It’s a valuable lesson that plays all the right notes. Audiences should definitely check it out.