Pixar introduces its first African American lead character in Soul from co-directors Pete Docter & Kemp Powers. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher, has long dreamed of performing jazz music onstage. One of Joe’s former student’s Curly (Questlove), is a musician in respected jazz singer Dorothea Williams’s (Angela Bassett) band. Wanting to repay his former mentor Curly arranges an audition for Joe where he impresses Dorothea and her crew. Earning a spot as part of the opening act at the Half Note Club, Joe is finally living his best life.
However, an untimely accident causes Joe’s soul to be separated from his body. Joe’s soul then begins to proceed to the Great Beyond. Thankfully Joe manages to escape to the Great Before. In this world, souls develop personalities, quirks, and traits before being sent off to Earth. There, Gardner must work with souls in training at the Great Before, such as 22 (Tina Fey), a soul with a dim view on life’s concept to return to Earth before his body dies.
Following Soul’s teaser trailer, the question on many fans’ minds was how much time we would actually wait for an African American lead on-screen. Films such as The Princess & Frog and Spies in Disguise received criticism for the short amount of time that the lead character was in human form. Without going into spoilers, I can assure you that while Soul briefly takes this route, it works for the story that directors Pete Docter & Kemp Power want to tell.
One of Soul’s co-directors Pete Docter previously directed three Pixar’s most substantial efforts, Up, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc. He has always been one of my favorite directors from the Pixar family. One of Docter’s strengths is his commitment to his material. Never one to dumb down his material, Docter’s Pixar films have always touched on mature themes while avoiding a risqué nature, and therefore enticing conversation among parents and their kids. Soul is no expectation and continues the trend with ease.
Pete Docter worked closely with co-writer and director Kemp Powers to ensure the ties of jazz music to African American culture received accurate representation. I never imagined I would hear A Tribe Called Quest and Erykah Badu in a Pixar film. And that’s just one of the surprises in Soul. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t follow the standard Disney/Pixar templates. Still, Docter’s and Powers’ route must be highlighted.
Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Joe is terrific. It gives the triple threat a chance to showcase his voiceover talents that were wasted in the Rio films. Foxx brings an honest and heartfelt cadence to Joe, portraying a man whose dreams were deferred through no actions of his own. When Joe meets 22, is where the film really picks up. Fey is delightful as 22 and has excellent comedic timing with Foxx. A dramatic arc for Joe and 22 is handled with care and provides some of the film’s best moments.
The human voiceover supporting cast of Soul includes Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, and comedian Donell Rawlings, who share great moments with Foxx. While Graham Norton, Wes Studi, and Alice Braga show up to provide laughs in the great beyond and the great before. There are also great cameos from Cody Chesnutt, which music fans will love, and Pixar regular John Ratzenberger.
As Soul is about a Jazz musician, you know the film must have a great soundtrack. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the film’s score, while Jon Batiste wrote the movie’s featured jazz songs. Finally, the animation is glorious; whether it’s a slice of pizza or a New York jazz club, Soul was a beautiful film to look at.
Filled with heart, great performances, and forcing the viewer to think about their own purpose in life, Soul is highly recommended. Henry David Thoreau once said, “Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” Hopefully, when the credits roll on Soul, audiences realize just how rich life can be, even if you never achieve your dreams.
Final Grade A
Soul will be available to stream via Disney + on Christmas Day