It takes nearly 12 minutes before Disney and Pixar show their title cards in Soul. By then, we’ve met a guy named Joe, basked in his dream to be a professional jazz pianist, and watched him fall down a manhole that’s led him to the other side. Now he’s being confronted with a bright multi-hued light called the Great Beyond, which draws souls to it like a bug zapper collects flies, and he’s understandably fleeing in the opposite direction.
To say that Soul is ambitious for a kids’ movie, or even a Pixar film, is an understatement. Here is a film for the whole family that deals with the terror of oblivion and thrusts its protagonist on a journey through a metaphysical cosmos which winkingly evokes the imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar during its opening credits. Yet all of that is still just prologue—a pretext for exploring something much more complex and challenging: the existential need for inspiration, and the agony of not achieving your aspirations.
But much like Pete Docter’s previous Pixar films, Up and Inside Out, the magic of Soul is not its sophistication; it’s that the movie tackles these complicated, adult themes in a way a child can at least relate to, if not fully understand. As the title suggests, this is a movie about laying a soul bare.
That soul in question is Joe (Jamie Foxx), a New York City musician who’s been “gigging” so long that many around him wonder why he hasn’t given up on jazz long ago. His mother (Phylicia Rashad) certainly thinks he should take the offer to be a full-time teacher at a local elementary school, where Joe shares a passion for teaching music, particularly jazz, with the next generation. But Joe can’t help but remember his dreams of playing at Manhattan jazz spots, especially when he gets the offer to jam with a legendary saxophonist (Angela Bassett).
Unfortunately, the same day he lands the gig that could change his life, he also might have died… or at least been put in a coma. And more intriguing still, in his escape from the Great Beyond, Joe winds up in the Great Before, a kind of education center/preschool for souls that have yet to be born on Earth, including one unruly sprite known as 22 (Tina Fey). To stay out of the bright light, Joe will agree to mentor 22 like many, many failed souls before him. And by letting 22 into the story of his own frustrated dreams, he opens 22 up to the anguish and joy of living.
As a picture that mostly takes place in the Great Before’s theoretical construct, Soul is as audacious a visual experiment as it is a story. The early allusions to older films aside, it’s in the Great Before where directors and co-writers Docter and Kemp Powers flex their imagination. The entire setting is so dedicated to evoking an abstract sense of Zen and prenatal bliss that it resembles an Apple screensaver—or maybe Nintendo’s virtual yoga studio, right down to the soothing ambient music.
It’s a land populated by authoritative angelic spirits, all named Jerry or Terry, and nearly each a precise blend of an ethereal guru and absent-minded bureaucrat. In fact, while there are antagonistic forces at work in the Great Before/Beyond, there are no villains; they’re just doing the spiritual good work of nurturing souls. And through their cloying hegemonic pleasantries, they want Joe to do the same for 22, a problem soul who never wants to experience life.
And therein lies the real rub of the movie. How do you explain the need to live, and the joys of it, when you try to break everything down to black and white print? How do you teach experience in a classroom that’s defined by abstract theory?
In this context, Joe is not the only mentor thwarted by 22, whose previous teachers range from Nicolaus Copernicus and Carl Jung to Marie Antoinette and Mother Teresa—which might comprise the most bizarre use of “easter egg” reference humor I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie—but he is the first to use disappointment as a guide.
In its way, Soul is a fascinating balancing act between the esoteric and intimately universal, an articulation of the wordless need for spiritual fulfillment and an all-ages adventure where Joe teaches 22 about pizza. That Docter, Powers, and their army of collaborators keep all the pieces in the air is kind of astonishing. Even who they’re working with is impressive in its singularity among animated films. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wrote most of the score while actual jazz pianist Jon Batiste takes over whenever Joe’s fingers are allowed to tickle some ivories, and the musician finds himself in a spiritual transcendence more wonderful than any Great Before magic trick.
These elements blend beautifully, if perhaps imperfectly. It’s easy to suspect that most children will not fully understand what the movie is about, and with its heavier subtexts, even many adults may not take as much enjoyment out of it as some of Pixar’s (and even Docter’s) other confections. Yet even if most younger viewers, like Joe, will not be able to fully articulate what this is they’re going through, the ultimate inexpressible joy of the movie is irresistible. Like living, it’s an experience that should not be denied.
Soul premieres on Disney+ on Christmas Day, Dec. 25.