Review – Soul

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, December 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham has a review of the latest big release from Pixar.

But she says it may please adults more than kids.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC:  There’s no question families are going to rush to stream Pixar’s latest release when it debuts on Disney Plus on Christmas Day. But I have a hunch that, worthwhile as it is as an artistic exercise, Soul is not a movie that’s going to find itself on constant repeat in minivans across the country.

Joe Gardner, played by Jamie Foxx, is a middle school band teacher still holding on to dreams of jazz greatness. But after years of having the door slammed in his face, he’s on the verge of settling for what he considers a mediocre life. That’s the moment his big break finally comes—a musical legend invites him to play piano with her quartet.

CLIP: Oh, sorry, I zoned out a little back there. Joe Gardner, where have you been? I’ve been teaching middle school band. But on the weekends…You got a suit, teach? Get a suit, a good suit. Back here tonight, first show is at 9, sound check is at 7. we’ll see how you do. Yes, woohoo. You’re never gonna believe what just happened. I did it, I got the gig.

And a moment after that he crosses paths with an even bigger break. Like, a mortal break. He falls down a manhole and wakes to find himself on the stairway to Heaven. Though here it’s more like an escalator to a blinding white light manned by a team of weird squiggle-drawing “administrators.” Unwilling to give up the ghost on his earthly aspirations, Joe makes a detour in his journey to the Great Beyond and winds up in the Great Before—a holding station where souls who have yet to be born prepare for life on Earth.

CLIP: Is this heaven? Is it HE double hockey sticks? Hell? No. Quiet coyote. It’s easy to get turned around. This isn’t the great beyond. It’s the great before. The great before? Oh, we call it the you seminar now. Re-branding. Does this mean I’m dead? Not yet. Your body is in a holding pattern. It’s complicated. I’ll get you back to your group.

If you think that sounds existential, you haven’t heard the half of it.  

In the Great Before, Joe is tasked with mentoring a frightened soul named 22, played by Tina Fey. 22 has been avoiding her turn at life for millennia.

CLIP: Dr. Borgenson will be matched with soul number 22. Oh, we’re going to get into this now. Excuse me. 22, you come out of this dimension right now. How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want to go to earth. Stop fighting me, you will go to earth and have a life. 22 has been at the you seminar for quite some time. And has had such notable mentors as Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Teresa. I made her cry. Ignore that. It is an honor having you prepare 22 for earth. I’m going to make you wish you never died. Most people wish that 22.

Before Joe and 22 take a journey to Earth where cross-species body-swapping hijinks ensue, the film leans heavily on New Age references. Writer/director Pete Docter is a professing Christian, but he seems to have taken pains not to include Biblical signposts. There’s no mention of God, only a passing mention of Heaven and Hell, and there’s nothing angelic about the administrators. 

The psychedelic pirates Joe and and 22 seek out to help them find a loophole in the afterlife system all practice various forms of Eastern meditation. Though the movie does poke fun at this idea a bit as the captain of the hippy-trippy band gets into an out-of-body state by twirling signs on the corner.

Perhaps Docter felt that, as his story plays with ideas that aren’t exactly doctrinally sound in order to explore deep themes, it would be better not to bring in specific elements from Christianity. Still, believing parents may not want to muddy little minds with the alternate wells he draws from.

That said, Docter does use his brightly colored, metaphysical version of It’s a Wonderful Life to a good end. The movie doesn’t just avoid the “pursue your dream at all costs” message we typically get from kids’ entertainment. It positively rebukes it. The story also builds to a deeply pro-life ethic. Joe ultimately learns that each life is valuable not because it offers some utilitarian purpose or because a person pursued some meaningful passion. People may live their whole lives having done nothing particularly noteworthy. They may have even suffered.

Life is valuable because it’s life.

But, given that the film centers on a middle-aged man and a Liz Lemon-style neurotic, it doesn’t seem likely to hold great appeal to viewers who can’t even imagine a midlife crisis as a blip on the horizon. But maybe Soul will be a hit with today’s little ones once they reach their twenties.

I’m Megan Basham.

(Disney Pixar via AP) This image released by Disney-Pixar shows the character Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, in a scene from the animated film “Soul.” 

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