Getting into the Zone: Soul (2020) - Reviewed

Over the years Pixar has been dipping their toes into more existential territory with Inside Out (2015) diving headfirst into metaphysical philosophy and abstract visuals. In their newest film Soul (2020) this is taken to an even higher level with an incredibly high concept premise and some truly gorgeous depictions of the afterlife and spirituality.

Soul follows the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged high school music teacher who is feeling ennui at the direction his life has taken. His biggest dream is to play jazz piano onstage in front of a crowd and when he isn't at work he is constantly daydreaming and practicing. He gets his big chance after auditioning for a band (and getting the gig) but on his way home he has an accident and well...dies. The rest of the film is concerned with Joe's experience in the afterlife and his quest to try to reunite his soul with his physical body back on earth.

While it seems that Pixar was careful to portray "heaven" as mostly non-denominational it does cherry-pick a few aspects like reincarnation and "crossing over". They also utilize other spiritual concepts like astral-projection and meditation. The way these ideas are visualized is fantastic, with the "stairway to heaven" being especially breathtaking. In lesser hands, the main theme of Soul could have felt preachy or overdone, but instead it ends up being humanistic and touching.

Joe as a character is relatable--he's a good guy who cares a lot about others, but at the same time he feels like he hasn't done anything worthwhile with his life. He is searching for his purpose and his biggest love is music. In this film, "the zone" is an actual physical plane where people go when they are completely engulfed in something they are passionate about. In Joe's case, he goes to the zone when he is playing music and is experiencing frission. As a musician myself, I found this to be such a beautiful idea and can recall many a time myself I have felt like I was "transported" to another dimension while playing piano.

The ideas explored in Soul are pretty deep and a few times it delves into some intense emotions like loss, grief, despair, anxiety, and obsession. Both children and adults can empathize with all of these things and it's great that the filmmakers respect children's intelligence and don't water down any of subtext. At its core, Soul is about stopping to enjoy the smaller moments in life and to take each day at a time. Just being alive is a gift and everyone's existence is justified because they add to the fabric of life.

Another interesting aspect of this film is that most of the main characters are black--it feels quite authentic and it's refreshing to see a story centered on black characters that isn't focused on struggle. Kemp Powers helped write the story and is also credited as co-director which makes him the first black director in Pixar's history (why did this take so long). These kinds of stories featuring diverse characters are just as important--we want to see happy, successful black people just living their lives as well.

Soul has two main locations: ultra-realistic New York City and the fantastical world of the afterlife. In New York the music is mostly jazz but in the afterlife it's much more electronic based. The jazz music was composed by Jon Baptiste and the electronic music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Oddly, these two completely different kinds of music mesh together perfectly helped by the fact that there are recurring leitmotifs in both styles.

Pixar has knocked it out of the park again with Soul, managing to address some heavy ideas while also having a lot of humor and warmth too. Grab a box of tissues, you will need them.

--Michelle Kisner