Rebecca’s Take

When I was little, I used to be entranced by the helicopter seeds that would fall off the trees surrounding my yard. I would watch them spinning through the air, forming a perfect spiral until one reached my hands. As I cupped the helicopter closely, I asked my dad what it was. I remember being in awe that something so small could hold the beginnings of life.

Watching “Soul” brought those moments back to me. Disney-Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece celebrates the wonder of life and the joys of living. Streaming on Disney Plus, the life-affirming film speaks to audiences of all ages, from children experiencing the world through fresh eyes to adults who may be taking its everyday marvels for granted. With its breathtaking animation, mesmerizing score and thought-provoking lessons, “Soul” reminds us to live life instead of just passing through.

The film follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a New York City music teacher whose true passion is playing jazz piano. When Joe gets the gig of a lifetime, it’s the moment he’s been waiting for – until an accident leaves his life hanging in the balance.

After Joe’s soul leaves his body, the teacher finds himself at an otherworldly weigh station where he connects with 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who doesn’t want to go to Earth. He agrees to be her mentor in exchange for her letting him return to Earth in her place. But the plan goes afoul when 22 inhabits Joe’s body, and he becomes trapped in the body of a cat. As they work to reunite Joe with his body before his upcoming performance, Joe and 22 learn there’s more to life than either of them realized.

Full of good messages, the light-hearted “Soul” mixes humor with deep insights about the human condition. The cartoon tackles heavy existential concepts and boils them down to a level that kids can understand. Mixing these lessons with the hilarious shenanigans of Joe trying to navigate a cat’s body had me alternately laughing and crying. But as funny as “Soul” is, don’t forget this is a Pixar film. In classic Pixar tradition, the emotional finale reduced me to a ball of tears.

Through Joe, the film shows you can live without living. The teacher is so fixated on achieving his dream of becoming a jazz pianist that he’s lost sight of what’s important: friends, family and enjoying the pleasures of life. Meanwhile, 22 has been avoiding going to Earth because she’s scared to live. She represents every insecurity and doubt that humans can have. From being told by past mentors she’s not good enough to she’ll never make it, the character is relatable to everyone watching the film.

This is where the symbiotic relationship between Joe and 22 really shines. Foxx and Fey make a dynamic duo as each character helps the other grow. It can be hard to like Joe sometimes because of how short-sighted he is. But seeing the world through 22’s brand-new eyes helps Joe realize what he’s been missing out on. 22 is able to pick up on things about the people around Joe that he never has. As the movie skimps on his backstory, we learn more about Joe through 22, which makes him more sympathetic as the film goes on.

In one of my favorite scenes, Joe feeds 22 a heart-wrenching monologue explaining to his mother (a wonderful Phylicia Rashad) why he’s afraid his life might lack meaning. The film highlights the simple joys that using your senses, like tasting pizza, listening to a street musician – and feeling a helicopter land in your hand – can bring. Through Joe, 22 realizes that knowing about life is not the same as actually living it. It’s scary and uncertain, but totally worth it. This is a valuable lesson at any age.

Following in a long line of Pixar’s prestigious works, “Soul” showcases astounding animation as it bounces back and forth between its heavenly and earthly settings. In the Great Before, the place where souls prepare for their lives on Earth, the surroundings are bathed in calming blues. Characters take on abstract forms that reminded me of Picasso paintings. The soft designs of the astral plane contrast sharply with the gritty earth tones and defined human forms of New York. There’s a harsh brightness to the city that the cartoon captures perfectly.

The film’s score is an ear-pleasing partnership between New Age and jazz. In their second film score of 2020 after “Mank,” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross experiment with instrumental and synth sounds, creating an ethereal soundtrack for the soul plane. The two could be looking at an Oscar nomination for their efforts. Back on Earth, Jon Batiste wrote and performed the soaring jazz music that guides Joe’s life. In a monumental first, Joe is Pixar’s first Black lead character, and the inclusion of jazz spotlights his African American heritage. The two genres of music work together beautifully to tell the story of a soul torn between Earth and what lies beyond.

There’s few flaws to detract from “Soul.” The real villain of the movie is time as Joe and 22 scramble to return him to his body while evading the notice of the Great Beyond’s authorities. But the movie felt compelled to make a physical villain out of one of the counselors who’s determined to account for every soul. I wish the script was more confident in relying on time as its ultimate villain. Time also hurts the film, in terms of its run time. At a breezy hour and a half, the film moves quickly, but it ends too abruptly. I would have preferred a more complete ending.

“Soul” will make you laugh, cry and appreciate everything life has to offer. Pixar’s latest offering ranks right up there with its best works. The uplifting film understands that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s in front of us, but it’s never too late to stop, take a minute and take it all in. No matter how big or how small – like a helicopter fluttering through the breeze – I hope there’s something that reminds you to live your life.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Joe, left, and 22 in “Soul”

Joe’s Take

For the past 25 years, Pixar revolutionized animated films. The studio continues its illustrious catalog of cinematic triumphs with “Soul.”

Like most Pixar films, “Soul” captures the imagination of children without talking down to them, and introduces adult themes that more than keep the attention of parents and 30-year-old men like me. Pixar knows how to accomplish that balance better than anybody. Finding that zone and spreading it to the film’s characters, story, animation, humor and emotion enables great films. And “Soul” rocks.

Jamie Foxx (Joe) and Tiny Fey (22) give awesome voice work as the main characters as Pixar often picks the perfect actors to bring its vision to light. Joe is a solid lead, who the movie should have developed a little more. He chases his dream of hitting it big on the jazz circuit. That dream consumes him and as a result the audience only learns pieces of his backstory. He proves unlikable at times as the audience connects more with Fey’s 22, a soul who doesn’t want to go to earth because she doesn’t believe she’ll enjoy it. However, her soul accidentally takes over Joe’s body on earth and Joe’s soul ends up in a cat. The duo has to find a way to get Joe’s soul back in his body before his big gig later that night. Her beautiful journey in Joe’s body engages the audience more than Joe’s singular focus. Joe works for the story, but if the film spent more time on him it could have made the character better.

Phylicia Rashad adds her iconic voice in a small role as Joe’s mother Libba, and Graham Norton makes me laugh as helpful companion Moonwind.

“Soul” takes the audience through a plot we all experienced to a certain extent. We can all relate to finding a place in the world and striving for a purpose. I thoroughly enjoy the idea of getting “in the zone” and the importance of finding a passion but not losing yourself in it; appreciating what we have instead of dwelling on what we don’t. These are strong adult themes, but “Soul” presents them in ways kids can understand, including excellent visuals.

The stellar and varying animation gives the film life without noise. The film travels seamlessly from earth to “The Great Beyond” and the “You Seminar.” All have different touches of animation that provide the audience a feel for each place. The best part of the animation was the emotion the animators captured on the faces of the characters, whether the expressions came from a human, soul or even a cat. The audience knew what each character felt by looking at body language and non-verbal cues.

This movie made me laugh quite a bit, as it made references to historical figures trying to serve as mentors to 22, used bits between 22 in Joe’s body and Joe in a cat’s body to perfection and took a shot at Knicks fans. It balanced that with effective emotional scenes that moved me to tears. Some of those scenes were aided by more phenomenal work in the music department from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. They continue to expand their involvement in the Hollywood scene, as the duo created three phenomenal scores in about a year’s time, one in television (“Watchmen”), one in an animated kids movie (“Soul”) and one with the director they usually collaborate with — David Fincher (“Mank”). Reznor and Ross perfectly capture the tone of the worlds in “Soul” and complement the emotional scenes beautifully. My favorite track “Epiphany” gorgeously accompanied the most moving sequence of the film. These two are now powerhouses in the industry and might be nominated for two scores come Oscar time.

At about an hour and a half before credits, “Soul” could have benefitted from a little bit longer run time. I didn’t want to leave the story so abruptly. As I mentioned earlier, the film didn’t use enough time to delve into Joe’s past. The film introduces the idea that Joe inspires those around him, but he’s so focused on his dream that he doesn’t realize it. I wish the film explored that more.

“Soul” proves another all-around masterpiece from a studio that gives us so many. It is Pixar’s best movie since 2017’s “Coco.” It combines humor with strong emotional story-telling. The vibrant and tone-setting animation team with a lively and gripping score that bolster the film’s heart … and soul.

4.5 out of 5 stars