How does one describe Soul (2020)? I have plenty to say about it, in case you might be worried by that opening line. But as I sit here on a chilly January morning reflecting on my experience of watching it, I am having trouble coming up with some kind of clever introduction. When I first saw previews for this film, which must have been a year or so ago before everything got shut down for a while, I resigned myself to seeing yet another Disney animated feature. But then theaters were closed and Disney decided to release Soul on Disney +. I was a little surprised by that decision, and I hope they will follow this model for future releases. Call me crazy, but I do not think the current trend of expanding streaming services is sustainable. People will only pay for so much. Wow, this has gotten off track. But here again I come back to my original point: how best to draw you into this review. Soul is an important movie to see, which is why I wish it had gotten a wide theater release. It is also a complex one to understand, which makes it perplexing because I am not sure its audience will fully appreciate it.
Soul is about a struggling jazz musician named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx). He longs to get consistent gigs, but is forced to teach middle school band part time in order to make ends meet. His class is what you would expect from a group of middle schoolers: disinterested and mouthy, though with a smattering of raw talent. One day he is offered a full time position as a teacher, which would mean a steady income and satisfy his mother Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad). Serendipitously, Lamont “Curley” Baker (voiced by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson a.k.a. Questlove), one of Joe’s former students, offers him the opportunity to play with famed saxophone player Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett, who is a fellow alumnus of Boca Ciega High School). This is the chance of a lifetime for Joe. However, on the way home from his audition, he has an unfortunate accident that, by all appearances, kills him. The next thing he knows he is a disembodied soul on a conveyor belt in space taking him to the big bug zapper in the sky. That description is purposely humorous, though the situation is a serious one and artfully depicted. Joe rebels against his situation because he is so close to achieving a lifelong goal. In desperation, he jumps out of line, falling through, I don’t know, the ether of existence? At any rate, he lands on a plane where souls await birth, going through training that will determine their personality when they are born. He is mistaken for another soul, one that has already lived and decided to be a mentor to the others that are about to enter the world. And he gets the dubious honor of guiding 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). Why the number? Because each soul is numbered, seemingly since the beginning of creation. 22 has resisted life, preferring to stay in the paradise like state of the Great Before, even though she had such august teachers as Archimedes, Abraham Lincoln, and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Joe is mostly uninterested in all this, desiring only to get back to his body, which is apparently on life support in the hospital. 22 agrees to help him in exchange for basically letting her stay in the Great Before. 22 knows of a place where there are souls of living people existing in a kind of astral plane (let us be honest, they are hippies) that we call “the zone.” Their leader is Moonwind (voiced by Graham Norton) and he holds the secret to returning Joe’s soul to his body. In the proceeding process, though, 22 gets sucked along. The result is that Joe ends up in the body of a therapy cat while 22 is in Joe’s form. It is 22’s worst nightmare, so they decide to track down Moonwind, who in real life is a sign spinner on a busy New York street corner, to help undo this mistake. They need to do this in time for Joe’s gig with Dorothea. All the while they are being chased by Terry (voiced by Rachel House), a sort of spirit that looks like what Picasso would have doodled while bored in fourth grade math class and is obsessed with making sure he is keeping an accurate count of the souls going into the Great Beyond. Joe has upset this balance, and Terry is determined to track Joe down and make sure his soul goes to the proper place. On the cusp of Moonwind performing the ceremony, for lack of a better word, that would make Joe himself again, 22 suddenly feels like life is not so bad after all and runs away. This is, of course, when Terry catches up with them and sends them all back to the Great Before. Being so close to achieving his goal, Joe is upset all over again, and blames it on 22. In anger, 22 tosses the completed badge needed to pass to earth and Joe goes on to perform with Dorothea. In the aftermath, he is remorseful over what happened to 22. Once home, he does his best Moonwind impression and enters the astral plane to save 22 from becoming a lost soul and returning her badge to her. Doing so might mean that he would be trapped in the Great Beyond, but 22 is worth it for him. The Jerries, the spirits in charge of the Great Before, are so impressed by Joe’s work that they arrange for him to go back to earth despite Terry’s objections. Thus, Joe has a new lease on life and a better perspective of what it all means.
What does Soul mean? Throughout it is searching for answers to that question, and it addresses them beautifully. In the film, that quest is referred to as your “spark,” in other words, what inspires and motivates you. For Joe, it is clearly music, and specifically jazz. Still, he is self-aware enough to know that what moves him will not necessarily move everyone else, and that principle informs how he guides 22. The problem with 22 is that nothing seems interesting enough to warrant leaving behind the bliss that is the Great Before. She must have that taste of life before she can realize how amazing living truly is. From eating pizza to something so simple as seeing a maple tree shed its twirling seed pods (I always called them helicopters growing up), the incredible variety of existence is beyond anything 22 could have ever imagined. In this sense, and many others, Soul is a pro-life movie. I will skirt the issue of abortion for the moment, which is not necessary to comment on in relation to this film. My only wish is to underscore how wonderful life is no matter what is going on in somebody’s life. We can get so wrapped up in the horrible moments, and there is a moment when Joe is presented with his lived experiences, many of which were quite lonely and sad. This part of the film hit extremely close to home, personally. 22 goes through a similar bout of depression after returning to the Great Before, especially when Joe claims that all 22 did while in his body was only because of him. Thus 22 feels unworthy of life. But every step of the plot is about choosing life. Granted, Joe is about to lose his life in order to save 22, but there too it is with the understanding that he has lived his life and another deserves a chance. Such sacrifices have their rewards, whether in this life or the next.
As a Catholic watching Soul, while I loved its pro-life message, I have to wonder somewhat about its depiction of our souls and what they experience. Before I continue, let me be clear that I do not think the film contradicts theology, or at least not purposely. There is a stereotype, and I feel this gets attached to Catholicism far too often, that we go around thinking we have all the answers. No one in the Church, from the Pope on down, has any truly defined sense of what the “Great Beyond” is actually like, or what is going on with our souls before we are born. Could it be like in the movie? Maybe. Who knows? I doubt it, but I honestly have no clue, and I think that is best. The one overriding principle the Church teaches about God is that He is love. That is it. The rest is interpretation, and that is where Faith comes in. Therefore, if you are some stalwart Christian that watches Soul critically and says, “That’s not what Heaven will be!” my response would be, “How do you know?” Or better yet, “Why does that matter?” Conversely, I would be remiss if I did not also discuss the potential danger of seeing something like this and believing that it could actually be possible. As wonderful of a movie I think this is, do we need to have such matters as what happens to us after we die further muddled by Hollywood? As Soul was ending, I recalled seeing articles of people committing suicide around when Avatar came out in 2009, thinking that by killing themselves they would reawaken in its mythical land of Pandora. And that film was not even dealing with the afterlife! The point being that we should not look to Hollywood, or Disney in particular, to tell us what is going to happen to us when we die. For my part, I will rely on an institution that has been around since the time of Christ.
The topic of death makes Soul a tricky film to recommend. I know I am not alone of being terrified of the concept of death when I was a child. Many was the night that I awoke sobbing over that thought, awakening my poor parents in my need for comfort. I am not a parent myself, but I do have two young nieces that I love dearly. Would I show this to them? I do not know. It is more than just the topic of death, and since my sister and her family do not practice Catholicism as I do, they lack the same framework through which to filter the content in this movie. How many ten year olds have heard of George Orwell? The joke they made with him and the pointlessness of school was hilarious to me, but to an eight year old? I also wondered how many adults recognized the picture of Duke Ellington in the mirror in front of which Joe prepared to play with Dorothea, let alone children knowing one of the greatest American composers of all time by sight in a cartoon. This is all to say that as much as they might enjoy this film, I can equally seeing them being bored and then crying the rest of the night, never mind getting a potentially false impression of what occurs after we die. My hope is that you read all this and take it into consideration. It is worth at least that much, and so much more. As the saying goes, “that’s life.”