Middle school music teacher Joe Gardner is headed for the greatest night of his life — he’s going to perform jazz at the Half Note Club in Manhattan. But an accident sends him toward the Great Beyond, where he meets a down-turned soul-in-training named 22, and fights to get back to the life he was destined to live.
Gardner certainly has his foibles, but he’s a good guy overall, and the audience is cheering for him to succeed even if the path from his accident to the Great Beyond to the life he wants gets a bit convoluted along the way. It helps that Gardner is voiced by Jaime Foxx, whose other animated fare was the Rio series. When Gardner connects with 22 (Tina Fey), we see an unlikely buddy trip developing, as they head to Earth.
Pete Docter’s films, Up, Monster’s Inc, Inside/Out, and now Soul, lean toward serious fare that wrestle with death, dying, purpose, and other adult-level concepts. While they have funny moments, they are not necessarily aimed at children in the way that other cartoons are. In fact, Docter might lead the charge for acknowledging that animated films aren’t just for kids! Visually, the film has aimed for something different, bouncing from style to style depending on which “level” of existence Gardner finds himself on. (This brings the film into comparison with Into the Spiderverse or the Wreck It Ralph movies in an attempt to present a diversity of animation within the context of one story.)
Soul challenges the audience, young and old, to consider what “spark” drives them to be who they are, which may or may not be who they’re meant to be. While a Christian understanding of soul would lead people of faith toward finding their calling in the discipleship of Jesus Christ, the elements presented here by the film provide an aesthetic worth considering, even if the purpose for it is unclear.
The Dove Take:
The film will certainly encourage discussion about big picture themes, like purpose and death and Heaven, but the laughs are few and far between.