“Soul” Review: Lighthearted Children’s Movie or Philosophical Dilemma?

by Kathryn McDonald

As COVID-19 restrictions have caused many disruptions for the entertainment industry, Pixar’s decision to release their animated film “Soul” on Disney+ in time for the holidays was highly anticipated by children and adults alike. 

Director Pete Docter began work on “Soul” following his second Oscar for the highly acclaimed Pixar film “Inside Out.” Docter has built a reputation for his innovative stories that make difficult concepts such as emotions and growing up easier for kids to understand while also seeking to engage adults. Making headlines for his decision to make “Soul” the first Pixar movie with an African American protagonist, fans of Docter’s work were looking forward to another artistic, colorful exploration of what makes us human.

“Soul” is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who dreams of becoming a famous jazz pianist. However, his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who has sacrificed everything for him to earn an education, encourages him to stop chasing his dreams and be realistic about his future. 

He is given the opportunity of a lifetime when he lands a gig with jazz veteran Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). On his way back home, an elated but oblivious Joe accidentally falls down a manhole and subsequently finds himself on a conveyor belt headed towards the Great Beyond.

Realizing the gravity of his situation, Joe frantically runs away from the Great Beyond and, in the process, ends up falling into the Great Before, a hypothetical world where souls are given personalities and find their spark before coming to Earth. There, he meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has been avoiding Earth for thousands of years. Working together, 22 tries to help Joe reunite with his body while Joe teaches 22 about the joys of living. 

While “Soul” may be a charming movie for younger audiences, adults will be left wondering if Pixar accomplished their ambitious goal of tackling some of humanity’s most widely debated philosophical questions, such as “Where do personalities come from?” and “What happens when we die?”. 

Even more questions are raised as we discover that, in this imaginary, hypothetical universe, souls are somehow deposited into human beings sometime after they are born. For many religious audiences, this assertion has some serious implications in terms of worldview and could be a deal-breaker. Unfortunately, it would seem that “Soul” does a better job of asking the questions than it does answering them. 

However, perhaps the most redeeming feature of the movie turns out to be Joe’s love of jazz, which shines through as one of the film’s most charming aspects. For musicians and lovers of all things jazz, this earnest portrait of a genuinely passionate musician is sure to strike a chord and may even inspire younger audiences to explore the often-overlooked genre. 

Overall, “Soul” seems to accomplish its goal of reminding audiences to enjoy the simple joys of life, exploring the things that you love, and encouraging others to do the same; however, when it comes to the film’s philosophical implications, perhaps it would be wiser for Pixar to stick to tamer topics in the future. 

“Soul” is now streaming on Disney+.

Kathryn McDonald is a sophomore Psychology major and an A&E writer for Cedars. You can probably catch her writing a letter to a friend in the library or drinking coffee from her favorite mug. When she is not at her desk studying, she is probably on her phone catching up with friends or reading her favorite American poetry.

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