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Pixar's "Soul" is about a jazz pianist who has a near-death experience and gets stuck in the afterlife, contemplating his choices and regretting the existence that he mostly took for granted. Pixar veteran Pete Docter is the credited co-director, alongside playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers , who wrote Regina King's outstanding "One Night in Miami." Despite its weighty themes, the project has a light touch. A musician might liken "Soul" to an extended riff, or a five-finger exercise, which is very much in the spirit of jazz, an improvisation-centered art that's honorably and accurately depicted onscreen whenever Joe or another musician character starts to perform. 

The prologue peaks with Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx ) falling into an open manhole and ending up comatose in a hospital. It's a bummer twist ending to a great day in which Joe was finally offered a staff job at his school, then nailed an audition with a visiting jazz legend named Dorothea Williams ( Angela Bassett ) who had invited him to play with her that night. After his near-lethal pratfall, Joe's soul is sent to the Great Beyond—basically a cosmic foyer with a long walkway, where souls line up before heading toward a white light. Joe isn't ready for The End, so he flees in the other direction, falls off the walkway, and ends up in a brightly colored yet still-purgatorial zone known as The Great Before. 

The Great Before is a bit like the setting of Albert Brooks' metaphysical comedy " Defending Your Life ." It has its own rules and procedures, and is part of a larger spiritual ecosystem wherein certain things have to happen for other things to happen. There's a touch of video game structure/plotting to the entire premise, and it's reinforced by the stylized drawing of Great Before characters in supervisory positions over mentors and proto-souls: they're two-dimensional, shape-shifting Cubist figures made of elegant neon lines.

The purpose of the Great Before is to mentor fresh souls so that they can discover a "spark" that will drive them to a happy and productive life down on earth. Joe is motivated mainly by a desire to avoid the white light and get back to earth somehow (and play that amazing gig he'd been waiting his whole life for), so he assumes the identity of an acclaimed Swedish psychologist and mentors a problem blip known only by her number, 22 ( Tina Fey ). Twenty-two is a blasé cynic who has rejected mentorship from some of the greatest figures in mortal history, including Carl Jung and Abraham Lincoln. Can Joe break the streak and help her find her purpose? Have you ever seen a Pixar film before? Of course. It's mainly about how things happen in these films, rarely about what happens. 

That having been said, there's a nifty comic twist about halfway through the film that livens up "Soul" just when it was starting to drag, and it's best not to spoil it here (even though trailers and ads already have). Suffice to say that 22 eventually does find her spark, although it takes a lot of effort and more than a few wild misadventures to get there; and that Joe reexamines his years on earth as a genial but meek teacher and finds them wanting. He didn't make as many friends as he should have and was consumed by fears that he traded his childhood dream of becoming a working jazz artist for a more ordinary life. (Joe's mother, played by Phylicia Rashad , is not supportive of his music.) The downside is that this turns "Soul" into another of a string of animated films (including " The Princess and the Frog " and " Spies in Disguise ") in which a rare Black leading character is transformed into something else for the majority of a film's running time.

Is this the first midlife crisis movie released by Pixar? Possibly, although Woody in the " Toy Story " films seemed to have a touch of that affliction as well. The movie is a bit shaggy and disorganized with its mythology/rules—something that Pixar is usually meticulous about, to the point of being obsessive. I'm not convinced it adds up to all much in the grand scheme by the time the final sequence arrives. The film's message could be summed up as, "Don't get so hung up on ambition that you forget to stop and smell the flowers." A birthday card could've told you that. And some of the jokes are a tad DreamWorksy, like the bit where a lost soul returns to earth and realizes that he's completely wasted his life by working in hedge funds; a ruthless international mega-corporation like Disney— which stuck most of its 20th Century Fox repertory holdings in a "vault" last year  to push people to rent or purchase new Disney product, and that once sued day care centers for putting its characters on murals without permission—has no business lecturing anybody else about the moral emptiness of materialism. 

And yet, " Cars " and its various derivatives aside, Pixar has never released a flat-out bad film. And this is a good one: pleasant and clever, with a generous heart, committed voice acting, and some of the kookiest images in Pixar history (including a ghostly, pink, land-bound pirate vessel belonging to a "mystic without borders," with tie-died sails, a peace symbol anchor, and Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" blasting on a continuous loop). The company has been entrenched at the center of popular culture for decades, its reputation fortified by animated features that blend innovative design and graphics, lively physical and verbal comedy, impeccably staged action, and a sensibility that one of my old college film textbooks called "sprezzatura"—described in Baldassare Castiglione's 1528 The Book of the Courtier  as " ... a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art, and make whatever one does or says seem to be without effort, and almost without any thought about it." In other words, Pixar makes it all look easy, even when hundreds of people worked on the project long enough to justify a "production babies" section of the end credits.

Despite feeling like rather minor Pixar overall, "Soul" will prove to be of historical interest because, despite the transformation issue, and when it isn't getting wrapped up in goofy afterlife shenanigans, it's the most unapologetically Black Pixar project yet released. Its portrayal of jazz is not only accurate in terms of its soundtrack of classic cuts and depiction of performance (the piano and trumpet playing is as correct as anything in Spike Lee's " Mo' Better Blues ") but also its wider cultural context. 

In a flashback, Joe's dad, who introduced him to jazz, describes the music as one of the greatest African-American contributions to world culture. There are many other touches in the film that testify to the story's anchoring in an experience beyond the white, middle-class suburban norms that Pixar embraces by default. There's even a visit to a Black barbershop showcasing an array of male hairstyles; a joke about the difficulty of a Black man hailing a taxi in New York City ("This would be hard even if I wasn't wearing a hospital gown!"); and a reference to Charles Drew, a Black physician credited with pioneering the blood transfusion. This distinction gives weight to lines that might not have registered in a Pixar film with white protagonists, such as 22's quip, "You can't crush a soul here. That's what life on earth is for."

Available on Disney+ on December 25.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Soul movie poster

Soul (2020)

Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.

102 minutes

Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner (voice)

Tina Fey as 22 (voice)

Ahmir-Khalib Thompson as Curly (voice)

Phylicia Rashād as Libba Gardner (voice)

Daveed Diggs as Paul (voice)

John Ratzenberger as (voice)

Richard Ayoade as Jerry (voice)

Graham Norton as Moonwind (voice)

Rachel House as Terry (voice)

Alice Braga as Jerry (voice)

Angela Bassett as Dorothea


Writer (story and screenplay by)


Composer (jazz compositions and arrangements by)

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‘soul’ rivals the pixar classics but might aim too high for the kids.

Brian Lowry

The best Disney/Pixar animated movies historically straddle the line between delighting children and adults. “Soul,” a Pixar title diverted to Disney+, tilts heavily toward the latter, beautifully exploring ambitious themes about the meaning of life that should resonate more with adults than the younger souls in your streaming orbit.

That warning aside, credit Pixar veteran Pete Docter (“Up” and “Inside Out”) and co-director Kemp Powers (the writer of the play and upcoming movie “One Night in Miami”) with an addition to Pixar’s library worthy of its classics. While the movie might not have been a commercial slam dunk, it’s hard not to admire a premise that dares to tackle such lofty ideas as life after death and what makes living worthwhile, as filtered through the hopes and dreams of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx).

A middle-school music teacher, Joe has spent his life yearning to make it as a musician, pursuing gigs at the expense of his career. When the opportunity suddenly presents itself to live out those dreams, his distracted glee leads to his untimely demise – a real bummer, considering that he had just said he “could die a happy man” if he got to play with the musician that had offered him the chance.

Awakening on the escalator to the hereafter, Joe makes a desperate break to go back, leading to a fairly amusing tour of what the great beyond might resemble. While that animation is customarily lush, the actual character design of the “souls” is rounded and simple – a bit like the Poppin’ Fresh doughboy, only a slightly eerie shade of blue.

In the process, Joe encounters a young soul in what’s known as The Great Before, 22 (Tina Fey), who has long resisted embarking upon the journey to Earth, despite a hilarious roster of mentors that includes a who’s who of historical figures.

It’s around here where “Soul” really begins to leave small fry behind, unless your preteen is apt to get jokes about George Orwell and Mother Teresa.

Pixar's 'Soul.'

Ultimately, Joe and 22 do find their way to Earth, but not in the way (or form) he expected, leading to a madcap series of encounters as he seeks to achieve what he sees as his life’s purpose.

That section of the movie unfolds cleverly enough, but it’s the resolution that really brings the whole idea home. The emotional nature of that experience recalls the opening sequence in “Up,” which silently chronicled a lifetime of love and ultimately loss, leaving many adults in the theater (ah, theaters) sobbing while their kids waited to get to the talking dog and airborne house.

“Soul” also features a wonderful score, since music is fundamental to the story, provided by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with jazz compositions courtesy of Jon Batiste – again, not something likely to be fully appreciated by the tykes on the couch.

Aside from Foxx and Fey, the voice cast includes Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett and Graham Norton and Daveed Diggs.

Of course, the idea of animation tackling big, existential themes is welcome, and the “Soul” creative team deserves enormous credit for the effort. Yet one suspects translating that into the sort of box-office stampede Pixar has enjoyed with movies like the “Toy Story” and “Incredibles” franchises would have been challenging, making the direct-to-streaming gambit less of a financial sacrifice.

Either way, “Soul” is highly recommended – especially to adults who might not be otherwise inclined – and a return to form for Pixar after the less-satisfying “Onward.” Parents wanting to really enjoy it, however, might want to watch at least once without their kids, who, understandably, will be less cognizant of choices made, roads not taken and where their own escalators might lead them.

“Soul” premieres Dec. 25 on Disney+. It’s rated PG.


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‘Soul’ Review: Pixar’s New Feature Gets Musical, and Metaphysical

This inventive tale stars Jamie Foxx as a jazz musician caught in a world that human souls pass through on their way into and out of life.

Jamie Foxx voices the character Joe Gardner, right, in “Soul.”

By A.O. Scott

In about 100 jaunty, poignant minutes, “ Soul ,” the new Pixar Animation feature, tackles some of the questions that many of us have been losing sleep over since childhood. Why do I exist? What’s the point of being alive? What comes after?

It’s rare for any movie, let alone an all-ages cartoon, to venture into such deep and potentially scary metaphysical territory, but this is hardly the first time that the studio has directed its visual and storytelling resources toward mighty philosophical themes. “Soul” follows “Coco” in conjuring a detailed vision of the afterlife — and also, in this case, the before-life — and joins “Inside Out” in turning abstract concepts into funny characters and vivid landscapes. The world that human souls pass through on our way into and out of life is a glowing, minimalist realm of embodied metaphors and galaxy-brain jokes, populated by blobby, ectoplasmic souls and squiggly bureaucratic “counselors” named Jerry.

But at the same time, “Soul,” directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers from a screenplay they wrote with Mike Jones, represents a new chapter in Pixar’s expansion of realism. (Slated to open in theaters earlier this year, it is streaming on Disney+ .) Having conquered fish scales in “Finding Nemo,” beastly fur in “Monsters Inc.,” metal in “Cars” and vermin in “ Ratatouille ,” the animators have set themselves more subtle challenges.

Though other Pixar projects have visited actual places (Paris, San Francisco, the Great Barrier Reef), this is the first to dive fully into the multisensory moods of a living city, chasing after its rhythms, its folkways, its architectural details. “Soul” is a movie about death, about jazz, about longing and limitation. It’s also a New York movie.

As such, it traffics in a brusque urbanist sentimentality that isn’t immune to or afraid of cliché. The sensory riot of the city includes squalling car horns, clattering trains, bagels, slices of pizza, barbershops, subway platforms and the perpetual-motion bustle of pedestrians, strollers, yellow cabs and more. Everything we used to complain about and miss desperately now.

All of this is rendered — “drawn” isn’t the right word; some combination of “sculpted” and “orchestrated” is what’s needed — with graceful, kinetic precision. Like other great New York movies, it invites you to identify particular intersections and storefronts, to compare its imagined geography with the city of your own experience.

It isn’t all noise and crowds. Part of the Pixar aesthetic over the years has been to collapse the distance between animation and other kinds of cinema, and you would swear that the New York scenes in “Soul” were filmed in natural light. There is a beauty that is almost spiritual in the way the sun falls across a block of rowhouses, through the windows of a storefront or along the floorboards of a walk-up apartment. Or maybe not “almost.” The apartment belongs to a pianist named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), whose literal struggle to keep body and soul together drives the plot across the city and into the beyond.

Joe, a jazzman like his late father, is at a crossroads. No longer young — though we don’t know exactly how old — he makes a living teaching music to middle-schoolers while chasing after gigs. His mother (Phylicia Rashad) worries about his prospects. A full-time job offer and a chance to sit in with a band led by an A-list saxophonist (Angela Bassett) arrive on the same day, which also turns out to be the last day of Joe’s life.

Sort of. The sheer inventiveness of “Soul” makes it impossible to spoil, but because it’s dedicated to surprise, to the improvisational qualities of existence, I want to tread lightly. Suffice it to say that Joe finds himself suddenly transported from Manhattan to a limbo where he meets a rebellious soul known as 22, who speaks in the voice of Tina Fey.

Not yet assigned to a definite human form, 22 has chosen that voice for its annoying qualities, and she has spent much of eternity driving everyone crazy — except for the Jerrys, who possess infinite patience (and speak in the soothing tones of Wes Studi, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade). There’s also someone called Terry (Rachel House), the resident bean counter, who is a pricklier character, and as much of a villain as this gentle, melancholy fantasy needs.

Anyway, 22 doesn’t see the point of going down to Earth to take up residence in a body. Joe is desperate to get back into his, and their conflicting, complementary desires send them back to Earth in a switched-identity caper. Each one is the other’s wacky sidekick, and each teaches the other some valuable lessons.

The didacticism of the movie is sincere, not unwelcome, and inseparable from its artistry. Jazz, far from being incidental to “Soul,” is integral to its argument about how beauty is created, sustained and appreciated — and to its grounding of a specifically Black experience in New York.

Joe’s playing is energetic and serene, and it carries him into a zone that is wittily literalized as an area between Earth and the spirit world. (Other visitors to this liminal region include a street-corner mystic named Moonwind, voiced by Graham Norton.) Jon Batiste’ s lovely jazz compositions take turns with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s subtle, cerebral score, building a sonic bridge between the sensual and the abstract, the physical and the metaphysical.

Like other Pixar films, “Soul” is aware of its own paradoxes. The “Toy Story” cycle is a humanist epic about inanimate objects. “Inside Out” is an exuberant fable about the importance of sadness. This is a mightily ambitious warning against taking ambition too seriously. Every soul, the Jerrys explain, has a spark that sends it into the world. Joe and 22 take this to mean that everyone has a unique purpose, a mistake that reflects a competitive, careerist ideology that the movie can’t entirely disown.

But it is nonetheless open to other possibilities, which may be all that any work of art can be. “Soul” tries, within the imperatives of branded commercial entertainment, to carve out an identity for itself as something other than a blockbuster or a technologically revolutionary masterpiece. It’s a small, delicate movie that doesn’t hit every note perfectly, but its combination of skill, feeling and inspiration is summed up in the title.

Soul Rated PG. Mortality. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Disney+.

A.O. Scott is a critic at large and the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @ aoscott

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Amazing animation, serious themes in existential dramedy.

Soul Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

Young viewers will learn a bit about jazz music, w

Promotes following your dreams, but not at the exc

Joe is a dedicated teacher, a disciplined musician

First Pixar movie with Black main character. Major

Joe falls down a manhole (nongraphic), and his bod

One use of "crap." "My life was meaningless." Also

Mercedes decal.

Parents need to know that Soul is Pixar's thought-provoking animated movie about a middle-aged band teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who nearly dies and gets stuck in the "Great Before" section of the afterlife (where unborn souls prepare to be assigned a trip to Earth) and then tries to make his way…

Educational Value

Young viewers will learn a bit about jazz music, what it means to be mentored, what motivates people to live their best life.

Positive Messages

Promotes following your dreams, but not at the exclusion of human connections and relationships. Encourages not taking life for granted and savoring small, everyday moments. Strong family relationships and friendships are highlighted, as are having passions and interests. No life is meaningless if you feel love and have friendships. One person's "spark" may not fullfil another; we all have our own purpose to find. Themes also include compassion, empathy, perseverance.

Positive Role Models

Joe is a dedicated teacher, a disciplined musician, a devoted son. And 22 grows as a character, discovering the small joys of humanity.

Diverse Representations

First Pixar movie with Black main character. Majority of human characters are also Black and are authentically voiced by actors like Jamie Foxx, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, etc. Native actors like Rachel House (Māori) and Wes Studi (Cherokee) voice noncorporeal characters of Terry and Counselor Jerry, respectively. Several strong female characters, as well as genderless unborn/other souls. But the film never sits comfortably in its Blackness -- perhaps a reflection of how the character of Joe was established by White writer-director Pete Docter long before Black co-director Kemp Powers joined. Ultimately well-intended, Soul still feeds into decades of Hollywood's penchant for transforming main characters of color into nonhumans ( The Princess and the Frog , Spies in Disguise ). Many diverse cast members become stylized, formless beings who rally in support of a White- and female-coded character's personal journey -- including Joe, who for much of the film exists as either a formless blue blob or a calico cat. And having 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) piloting Joe's Black body uncomfortably evokes themes of Jordan Peele's Get Out , in which White souls use Black bodies for their own gain. Soul lacks that film's self-awareness around the flawed visual metaphor.

Inclusion information : Black actors

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Violence & Scariness

Joe falls down a manhole (nongraphic), and his body appears dead or dying. He's hospitalized and looks disheveled/jittery while walking around the city. It seems like Joe has died in a couple of scenes. Physical comedy as Joe makes his way around NYC with another soul controlling his body.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

One use of "crap." "My life was meaningless." Also "meh," "idiot," "imbecile," "selfish," "self-absorbed," "you ruin everything," "you have no purpose."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

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Parents need to know.

Parents need to know that Soul is Pixar's thought-provoking animated movie about a middle-aged band teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx ) who nearly dies and gets stuck in the "Great Before" section of the afterlife (where unborn souls prepare to be assigned a trip to Earth) and then tries to make his way back to his body. It's beautiful and creative, with themes of compassion, empathy, and perseverance, but it's likely to resonate more with adults who've wondered about the meaning of life than with little kids. And while there's no real violence, the movie makes it ambiguous whether Joe is dead or alive, which could upset or confuse some younger viewers. There are also philosophical themes about the meaning of life that might go over kids' heads, as well as arguments and a bit of insult language ("imbecile," "idiot," "self-absorbed," etc.). This is Pixar's first movie with a Black main character, and the film struggles to sit comfortably with that: Joe spends much of the film outside of his own Black body, seen instead as a blue blob, a calico cat, or, in an eyebrow-raising body-swap plot, accidentally taken over and piloted by 22 (voiced by White actor Tina Fey). The all-star voice cast does embrace a diverse range of actors, though, including Angela Bassett , Daveed Diggs , Phylicia Rashad , and Questlove . It features jazz music composed and supervised by Jon Baptiste, as well as a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

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What's the story.

Disney/Pixar's SOUL is the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx ), a pianist who is offered a steady full-time job teaching middle school band but is ambivalent about it because he's been pursuing a professional music career for many years. On the same day he gets the job offer, Joe unexpectedly lands a plum gig playing with a famous saxophonist ( Angela Bassett ). Right after getting this amazing news, Joe falls into a manhole -- and the next thing he knows, his soul is on an escalator to the Great Beyond. But Joe isn't ready to go: His dream had finally come true! So he fights his way into the Great Before, a trippy, colorful, ethereal place where unborn souls reside until they've acquired not only the personality traits they'll have once they're assigned to a human body but also an indefinable "spark" for life. New souls are given mentors (the souls of notable people who've died) to help them prepare for their journey as humans. Joe is mistaken for a mentor and assigned to "troubled" unborn soul 22 ( Tina Fey ), who has outlasted hundreds of other mentors (from Gandhi and Marie Curie to Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln) and has yet to find her spark and earn her ticket to Earth. Joe, still obsessed with making his upcoming gig, must find a way to inspire 22 and get back to Earth.

Is It Any Good?

Mature messages about the meaning of life and death may elude younger children, but kids are still likely to enjoy the adorable souls and the laughs in Pixar's thoughtful, vividly animated dramedy. It's difficult to fully explain Soul 's plot, which takes place half on Earth and half in the after/before-life, but it makes sense as you experience it. Co-directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers (the Black playwright and screenwriter who also wrote One Night in Miami ) and based on a script they co-wrote with Mike Jones, the movie follows the experiences of a Black man (Foxx) as well as a lost soul (Fey) on a journey to overcome her insecurities. And Joe isn't going to, as Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it in Hamilton , throw away his shot -- even if that means sneaking his way back to Earth. Foxx's and Fey's voice talents are supported by a wonderful international cast that includes Daveed Diggs , Questlove , Alice Braga , Graham Norton , Wes Studi , and Rachel House ( Thor Ragnarok ) as a particularly hilarious, rule-following, deadpan accountant for the Great Beyond who knows their tally is off by one person.

Pixar continues to outdo itself on the aesthetic front, and the animation is stellar: Scenes of the dust particles on Joe's piano, the cheese on a New York City pizza, and the fabric on a suit seem so real that it's almost difficult to believe it's animated. And there are plenty of other things to love about the movie, too: the jazz music (supervised and written by Jon Baptiste of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert ), the banter between Joe and 22, and the heartfelt representation of the Black community (most notably in a barber shop Joe frequents, his relationship with his mother, voiced by Phylicia Rashad , and the circle of jazz performers). Powers' contribution to the screenplay is crucial, as it lends a lived-experience authenticity to these scenes, but his late-stage addition to the filmmaking team didn't magically solve some of the core issues inherent in Joe's story arc and film's prioritization of 22. One thing to consider is that Soul is unlikely to appeal to little kids as much as it will to teens and adults (kind of like Ratatouille ), and its messages about pursuing your dreams and what it means to have a spark for life might be a bit too nuanced. Soul may not solve any existential crises, but it will make audiences appreciate this one "wild and precious life."

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about Soul 's philosophical themes . What do you see as the movie's messages about how to live a meaningful life? How does that goal vary for different people?

How do the characters demonstrate compassion , empathy , and perseverance ? Why are those important character strengths ? Do you consider anyone a role model ?

Why is it important for the characters in movies and TV shows to be diverse?

How does Soul compare to other Pixar movies you've seen? Who do you think its target audience is?

Movie Details

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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

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movie reviews soul

‘Soul’ Review: Life, and How to Live It

What is “soul”? ? Is it that feeling you get when you tap into the flow between emotion and expression, the spiritual and the physical? Is it something personal percolating within you, waiting to be unleashed? Is it the essence of humanity in a nutshell? Defining the concept is like aiming at a constantly skittering target. You sense it when you sense it. I know you’ve got soul.

No questions necessary, however, when it comes to understanding what Soul is — all you need to hear is the phrase “the new movie from Pixar .” (Or for that matter, where you can see it: on Disney+, starting Christmas Day .) It’s an animated movie, located right at the crossroads of absurdity and profundity, and likely to tickle funny bones as well as lubricate tear ducts. It will feature celebrity voices, be filled with both pop-culture parodies and high-art references, and present a depth and sophistication far above the usual family-friendly fare. A certain amount of quality is a given. (Unless it involves nothing but anthropomorphic cars. Then all bets are off.) And while Pete Docter’s follow-up to Inside Out is nowhere near that particular Pixar highpoint’s resonance and ingenuity, it does make for an odd fraternal twin to his 2015 teen-angst magnum opus. Whereas that candy-colored trip through an adolescent girl’s cerebral cortex concentrated on the brain, Soul naturally focuses on pinpointing the anima. And that existential query posed up top is one of many deep thoughts that are very much on the movie’s mind. Why are we here? What’s your spark? What makes your life worth living?

For Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx ), the answer is: music. Ever since his dad took him downtown to see a performance at the Half Note when he was a boy, all he’s ever wanted to do is to become the next Duke Ellington. Except the now middle-aged Average Joe is stuck teaching standards to mostly disinterested middle-school kids. (The name of the composition his band class is currently butchering: “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”) He has the chance to turn this part-time gig into his full-time job, which means stability, a steady paycheck and a dream of a Monk-ish life permanently deferred. Then a call from an old pupil, a drummer (Questlove, because of course!), presents an opportunity. The pianist for the legendary Dorothea Williams Quartet has dropped out at the last second. Would Joe wanna throw his fedora in the ring to replace him?

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Joe passes both the muster of the skeptical, take-no-shit bandleader (Angela Bassett) and the audition. He’s so ecstatic about his big break that he’s oblivious to the open manhole he falls in, which is where Soul ‘s narrative proper sputters to life. Or rather, into the void: a cosmic conveyor belt carries a small, blobbish figure with glasses and a porkpie-shaped noggin — I Am Joe’s Lifeforce — toward the Great Beyond. He isn’t ready to go into the light, jumps off the heavenly treadmill and soon finds himself in “the Great Before.” Imagine if Fischer-Price designed a pastel purgatory. This is where souls-to-be reside before they fly down to earth, lorded over by walking, talking one-dimensional Picasso sketches all named Jerry. According to those Cubist bureaucrats, the little blue soul-toddlers need mentorship first. They need likes, dislikes, passions, characteristics. They must form a nature-not-nurture personality (“I’m an agreeable skeptic who’s cautious yet flamboyant!”) before they can enter their corporeal phase. Our fugitive from death hatches an escape plan: steal an identity, help a newbie, swipe their “earth pass” and get back to his body before the gig. Easy-peasy, until No. 22 enter the picture.

That’s the Little Soul Who Wouldn’t, a tenacious pain of a shmoo who’s stymied the efforts of past mentors such as Abraham Lincoln and Copernicus, once made Mother Theresa cry and, as voiced by Tina Fey , No. 22 is blessed with a maximum girlboss puckishness that singlehandedly sells the character. No. 22 doesn’t want to discover her purpose for existing. She does not even want to be alive. Joe has to inspire her or perish before he can show the world he’s more than the guy he sees in this limbo’s flashback-accomplishments hallway, i.e. someone who seems to be killing time while waiting for an already-in-progress life to start.

Without venturing too deep into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say they do both end up together on the third rock from the sun, just not how they imagined. Fans of a certain strain of popular ’80s comedies (notably one featuring a famous stand-up, a pioneer of one-woman shows and a magic bowl) are likely to find themselves in pleasantly familiar territory. The fact that Soul features an African-American lead, was cowritten and codirected by the playwright Kemp Powers ( One Night in Miami …) and weaves in aspects of middle-class African-American culture while treating race as a matter of fact — rather than a back-patting novelty, a look-ma-I’m-woke box to be ticked or Hollywoodized exotica — feels quietly revolutionary. So does the rainbow coalition of supporting voices here, which includes Sonia Braga, Rachel House, Wes Studi and Richard Aayode. You’re constantly reminded that no one in the animation game can marshal a mix-and-match of creative talent and a Stradivarius-maestro level of heartstring plucking with such accessibility and verve.

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Which is why Soul soars above its two-dimensional ‘toon peers, even if sort of pales in comparison to Pixar’s previous milestones. It doesn’t have the eye-popping wow of Coco (2017), another netherworld jaunt that turned a Dia de los Muertos visual palette into something both culturally specific and universal. There are a number of moments, however, where you can feel the animators’ imagination kick into fourth gear, notably via a psychedelic galleon used by “Mystics Without Borders” and the be-bop aurora borealis that appears when Joe is lost in his own playing, courtesy of Jon Batiste’s vigorous jazz compositions. The rubber-limbed human characters, who come in caricaturish shapes ranging from pear to stringbean, get more of a chance to strut and fret (and wobble and flop and shudder and leap) upon the stage once things switch from Great Before to terra firma, and it’s the slice of life stuff that works even better than the admittedly deft slapstick bits. For that matter, a sequence in a barbershop and a brief heart to heart in the tailor shop Joe’s mom (Phylicia Rashad) do more heavy emotional lifting than the more obvious tearjerking climax(es) as the clock ticks down. Per most Pixar joints, a box of Kleenex is a must-have accessory, though New Yorkers may find themselves welling up more at the sight of our photorealistic city rendered in all its autumnal late-afternoon glory, and still forever blessed with jazz clubs, used bookstores and bustling street life, more than anything else.

Still, there’s a tendency for its story of midlife crises and posthumous second chances to tonally devolve into a self-help guide — a Zen and the Art of Emotional-Cycle Maintenance 101 primer that gets a little touchy-feely about following your bliss by the end. (Though is it preferable to, say, going full Ayn Rand a la The Incredibles ? Yes.) For all of the ways Pixar has helped evolve kids-movie parables as a genre and animation as an art form, it’s still prone to a pop-psychology default mode that can border on platitude pimping — an accusation that won’t necessarily be discounted after dinging Joe for not fulfilling his potential, or seeing the forest for the trees, or acknowledging that the mere notion of a forest full of trees is a joyous miracle unto itself.

There are many elaborate lessons on life and how to live it in Soul, though its best may ironically be its simplest: Look. Listen. Learn. Enjoy. You may not turn the film off with an answer to what a soul is. But you may find yourself wondering if you’re forgetting to occasionally connect with your own.

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Soul Reviews

movie reviews soul

Is it among the very best Pixar has to offer? No. Did it make me think and feel deeply the way that a Pixar film often does? Absolutely.

Full Review | May 2, 2023

movie reviews soul should help convince them that even if it’s not something they are great at, all they have to have is passion for its pursuit and that will be more than enough to satisfy their soul’s enrichment.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/4 | Nov 26, 2022

movie reviews soul

An existential comedy that delivers beyond generic religious, psychological, life goals and ideals... [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Oct 18, 2022

movie reviews soul

Soul is a thoughtful animated family film with a tender nature, some sweet laughs, and an even kinder heart.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Sep 9, 2022

movie reviews soul

Soul may not match the top-tier titles in Pixar’s formidable filmography, but this emotive exploration of human existence is just as engrossing all the same.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Sep 1, 2022

movie reviews soul

Pete Docter’s gratifyingly inventive Soul is anchored in a similar site of broken chances and eluding hope, making it one of the most defining films of this year.

Full Review | Aug 26, 2022

movie reviews soul

“Soul” is a heartfelt story about second chances and finding real purpose in your life. It’s about obsessions, mortality, and finding the true qualities that make each of us tick.

Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Aug 25, 2022

movie reviews soul

While there’s plenty of zany action, including talking animals and a body swap, Soul is one of Pixar’s quietest, most contemplative, and gentle films. And for anyone who has questioned why you’re here, this will pack an emotional punch.

Full Review | Original Score: 8/10 | May 20, 2022

movie reviews soul

The film teeters on that fine line between genius and curiosity, going in directions that are unexpected even for a studio like Pixar. The film is confirmation that Pixar are still a company that do things their way, and that can only be a good thing.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Feb 28, 2022

movie reviews soul

Beyond its sillier humorous notes and efficient, fast-paced explanations of complex worlds, Soul rewards contemplation.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/4 | Feb 17, 2022

movie reviews soul

Soul is not just another masterpiece in the Pixar collection, but it is also the studios most thought-provoking and one of their most innovative features theyve made.

Full Review | Original Score: 10/10 | Feb 16, 2022

movie reviews soul

The film looks exceptional, the music sounds amazing, yet even with all the technical bells and whistles, Soul never forgets the emotional core and experience of its characters. It's a film that tells a story at a sensory level.

Full Review | Original Score: 9/10 | Feb 14, 2022

An impressive technical achievement. [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Dec 14, 2021

The truth is that the film is presented as entertainment, but not so naively. [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Dec 8, 2021

movie reviews soul

Only half a good movie. When mucking around with unfunny body-swap nonsense, it falls flat. When pondering the deep passions that give us reasons to live, it excels.

Full Review | Sep 13, 2021

movie reviews soul

It's comedic, moving and the animation is pristine. [But] [i]t's like animation meets Get Out, meets Magical Negro.

Full Review | Jul 2, 2021

movie reviews soul

I wish the film focused on and channeled more of its energy into that relationship and Joe's own life rather than his bump-in with 22.

Full Review | Original Score: C | Jun 28, 2021

movie reviews soul

Soul [is] a wildly ambitious, sometimes brilliant, gorgeously animated (in every sense of the word) film, all while breaking one of Disney/Pixar's biggest glass ceilings: an animated film featuring a Black lead character.

Full Review | Jun 8, 2021

[Soul] opens as a metaphysical theme park and morphs into a slapstick body-swap comedy ... It's a quietly joyous send-off to a relentlessly bleak year.

Full Review | Jun 5, 2021

movie reviews soul

It's solid Pixar working their magic with a couple rough spots but nothing to truly sour the experience.

Full Review | Original Score: 6/10 | May 25, 2021

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Soul Is Pixar at Its Most Unpredictably Weird

Portrait of Alison Willmore

Pixar has made movies that have ventured into the afterlife, opened on the blighted remnants of a postapocalyptic Earth, and regarded the immensity of death through the eyes of a set of beloved anthropomorphic toys. But with Soul , which hits Disney + on Christmas Day, the animation giant takes on what has to be its most unlikely subject matter yet for what’s technically a children’s film: the dilemma of whether to keep chasing gig-economy dreams or to take an uninspiring staff job that comes with some very handy health benefits. Admittedly, the character facing this decision — a jazz pianist named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who’s been working as a part-time band teacher while waiting on a music career that never seems to materialize — does spend a good stretch of the runtime as a talking cat. Still, if Pixar has, in recent years, fallen into a rhythm of alternating unpredictable originals with safer sequels to the proven hits, Soul plays not just like one of the former, but like the accumulation of a decade’s worth of odd ideas. It’s whimsical and bold and also easier to admire in the abstract than to get deeply emotionally invested in, though it features a late-breaking burst of beauty that will soften the hardest of hearts.

Soul was directed by Pete Docter, with One Night In Miami ’s Kemp Powers credited as a co-director as well as a writer, and in some ways it’s a companion piece to Docter’s Inside Out . Where that 2015 film explored the terrain of the mind of an isolated 11-year-old girl, Soul does the same for the inner life of a stalled-out middle-age man, though it takes a less direct route getting there. Joe, fresh from an unfulfilling stint instructing middle schoolers, gets the news that he’s being offered a full-time position. His mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad), who runs a tailor shop and who’s been not-so-subtly urging her son to get on with his life, is delighted. But Joe cares more about the call he gets from a former student, Curly (Questlove), about a chance to audition for famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) — a terrifying, thrilling opportunity that he, despite some initial fanboyish fumbles, aces. And it’s right after Joe sails out of the club, having been booked to play with Williams’s quartet that night, that he walks into an open manhole, dies, and finds himself transformed into an adorable little ghost blob en route to the afterlife.

Most people would be at least a little curious upon finding themselves in this situation, but so single-minded is Joe that he can only think about getting back for the gig that might be his long-awaited break. He retreats from the light and somehow makes his way to a part of the film’s nondenominational hereafter, where new souls are readied to go off and live lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he’s paired up with a troublemaker named 22 (Tina Fey) who has no interest in being sent down to Earth. The two make a deal to what they hope will be their mutual advantage, though instead it leads to the talking cat. Soul definitely resist easy summaries and all guesses as to where it’s going as you watch it. There’s a definite satisfaction to how expectation-defying the film is, with its hairpin twists and turns, though some of the surprises stem from the way that Soul can’t entirely figure out how its two worlds mesh together thematically. The soft-focus passion-versus-purpose generalizations to be found in the Great Before never quite line up with the realities of Joe’s life and his blinkered certainty that happiness can only come with the professional achievements he’s always longed for — that everything will finally click into place.

Maybe it’s that his issues feel less easily explained than the soul-sculpting process suggests. Maybe it’s just that Soul is a midlife-crisis story that’s pretending otherwise. Rather than feel like a kids’ movie reaching for grander ideas, it ultimately comes across as trying to obscure how resolutely grown-up the sentiments at its core really are — first by hurrying off to a spiritual plane filled with soft shapes and chipper bureaucracy, somewhere between a preschool and a self-help seminar, and later by settling into some animal slapstick. It is, at least, unfailingly neat to look at, especially in how it differentiates its bustling New York streetscapes and the pastel twilight of the Great Before, which consists more of soothing textures than of forms. That delineation features some of Pixar’s most interesting visuals since the 2010 short Day & Night , which combined 2-D and 3-D animation. The afterlife (or is that the beforelife?) is intriguingly abstract, down to the counselors (voiced by, among others, Richard Ayoade and Alice Braga) and counters (Rachel House) who are flat beings moving around spaces that are not flat.

The regular life, meanwhile, looks about as good as it ever has in the company’s history, courtesy of a balance in which the characters are allowed to remain slightly stylized while the autumnal backdrops are warmly lit and rich with near-tangible detail and longing. It’s their vibrancy that allows a late montage of memories, recent and distant, to be as beautifully poignant as it is, a summary of a life that, despite its owner’s doubts, absolutely had meaning. It may not summon the expected Pixar deluge of tears, but it is, in its own quiet way, devastating.

Disney and Pixar’s Soul is available to stream on Disney+ beginning on December 25.

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movie reviews soul

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‘Soul’ Review: From the Minds Behind ‘Inside Out’ Comes an Even Deeper Look at What Makes People Tick

Pixar gives audiences a fresh way to think about the dimension that defines their personality, while broadening its cultural horizons to feature the studio's first predominantly Black cast.

By Peter Debruge

Peter Debruge

Chief Film Critic


Where do people get their personalities? Do parents play a part, or are such things somehow determined before birth? For centuries, doctors of psychology, doctors of philosophy and doctors of theology have contributed their thoughts on the subject, but the latest breakthrough comes from another kind of doctor entirely: Pete Docter , the big-idea Pixar brain behind outside-the-box toons “Inside Out” and “Up,” who takes a look deep inside and comes up with another intuitive, easy-to-embrace metaphor for — dare I say it — the meaning of life.

The result is “ Soul ,” a whimsical, musical and boldly metaphysical dramedy about what makes each and everybody tick, featuring a cast of characters who don’t have bodies at all. “Soul” opens with the death of its down-on-his-luck hero, middle school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated pianist who aces a jazz band audition, then steps out into the street, where he narrowly avoids being smushed by construction workers and crushed by an oncoming car, only to fall through a manhole to his untimely end.

This is not at all where one expects a kids movie to begin. Not even “Bambi” went so far as to kill its main character before the opening credits. But then, “Soul” plays hardly anything by the rules. Frankly, this may not be a kids movie at all, although releasing directly to Disney Plus subscription service on Dec. 25 (amid COVID-19’s second wave) suggests the studio is treating it as such. Joe’s death isn’t scary, but it asks young audiences to acknowledge the issue of mortality in a way that few films dare. And then, it proceeds to bend — although “shape” might be a more accurate word — their understanding of what happens before and after people’s lives on Earth.

Just before he bites the dust, Joe lands his big break, earning a shot to play with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at the Half Note club. Nearly all his life, Joe has wanted nothing more than to be a musician. He’s good, too, given the improvisations we’re privy to here — in class, in rehearsal and later, in the solitude of his own apartment. So it’s not surprising that he might be alarmed to find himself on a conveyor belt through the Great Beyond, the void-like zone Docter and production designer Steve Pilcher have imagined late souls enter just before they are zapped into oblivion.

Again, this sequence could have been intimidating for young viewers — or old ones, for that matter — though the movie treats it lightly, allowing Joe (who’s the only soul with second thoughts about the afterlife) to fall off the escalator and plunge through several dimensions to the Great Before, a more Elysian Fields-ian place with lilac skies and periwinkle grass where giggly, vaguely Casper the Friendly Ghost-like souls are prepped for Earth.

It’s an awe-inspiring answer to an impossible challenge: How to animate the not-yet-animate? But this is a Pixar movie, so it’s no surprise that the team opts to cutesify the abstract idea of a pre-corporeal self, giving each soul googly eyes and a pure glow. What we see are adorable amorphous blobs with trippy chromatic aberration around the edges — color fringing that suggests the virtual lenses can barely capture their elusive luminosity (and the opposite of old-school animation, where characters were “contained” by thick black lines).

There are rules for this realm, which recall the ingenious way Docter translated the notion of human emotion into clean cartoon terms with “Inside Out.” Nascent souls appear here and are guided along by mentors — those who have already lived and seem keen to pass their passions along to the next generation. Once new souls discover their “spark,” they’re given an entry pass to Earth, where they’re presumably assigned to an infant body. (It’s a far more sophisticated explanation of where babies come from than the delivery storks of “Dumbo” — or Pixar’s own “Partly Cloudy” short.)

That’s where Docter’s groundbreaking theory of where people get their personalities factors in: Some components are imprinted at the “You Seminar” (another, more corporate-sounding name for the Great Before), and others are discovered with a little helpful guidance from the older souls. The model isn’t perfect, but there’s a certain brilliance in encouraging kids to identify what excites them in life. One can imagine “Soul” leading to early “eureka” moments in some viewers. Still, the film seems better suited to adult audiences, the way Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” resonates differently with a little life experience.

Joe wants to get back to the body that (we learn) is still hooked up to life support. But he’s mistaken for a mentor and randomly assigned to a “soul mate,” No. 22 (Tina Fey), a misfit who’s been around for ages and who seems perfectly content never to “get a life.” In fact, 22 prefers it in the Great Before, where countless, more accomplished mentors than Joe — from Abraham Lincoln to Mother Theresa — have tried (and failed) to find her spark. But the overseers — a trio of classic UPA-style line drawings (Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Wes Studi), each named Jerry — are easygoing enough to let these two give it a go, and before long, they find a loophole that lands them both on earth.

It’s going to be hard for “Soul” audiences to keep this next twist a secret, but for the sake of the review, let it be a surprise how the pair manifest on earth. Joe’s desperate to get back to that jazz club, while 22 would give anything not to be dragged along on his single-minded — and clearly selfish — mission to make his jazz dreams come true. (She far prefers her comfortable nonexistence to the assault of overwhelming noises and smells of New York City.) But now that she is alive, 22 starts to realize that it’s not as bad as she imagined.

That’s not a message kids need to hear, though there is surely no shortage of adults out there who wish they’d “never been born at all,” and “Soul” has the generous, big-hearted quality of so many Pixar movies before it that makes even a mediocre life seem like something to be appreciated. Docter and co-writers Mike Jones and Kemp Powers (the latter also co-directed) have filled the back half of the film with scenes that uplift and set receptive souls a-tingling.

First, there’s the barbershop, where Joe comes to realize that his obsession with music has interfered with his ability to make meaningful friendships. There’s the face-to-face with tough-love mom Libba (Phylicia Rashad) that puts some of his parental issues in perspective. And there’s the truly magical moment when Joe sits down at his piano and just starts playing, drifting off into what the movie refers to as “The Zone.” As the sage and slightly kooky-sounding British talkshow host Graham Norton puts it, in character as a mystic named Moonwind, “When joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”

Of all the movie’s gambles — those big risks that might have caused this dazzling house of cards to collapse upon itself — the most unexpected is Pixar vet Docter telling fellow adults that there’s such a thing as being too focused on one’s dreams. Here’s a lesson coming from a studio where artists notoriously sacrifice their private lives to fulfill their passions, where long hours and absolute focus are expected of their employees. And then Docter goes and pushes his luck one step further with a life lesson hardly any family movie dares acknowledge: Sometimes, achieving your dream can leave you feeling emptier than you did before.

Like it or not, that’s a truth worth telling — a sincere, dark-night-of-the-“Soul” revelation —and one that feels far more radical than the long-overdue decision to center this film on a predominantly Black cast. Pixar’s been way behind the diversity curve for far too long: From its inception, the company has been a boys club in which the core team of (bright) white guys have taken turns directing movies about white characters: white toys, white fish, white cars, white ideas. They’ve made room to mentor, but have been slow to diversify their characters and stories onscreen.

And now this. It will be up to audiences of color to decide whether this exceptional film satisfies Pixar’s long void of near total nonrepresentation. “Coco” was a start, though this feels like a breakthrough: a cartoon where the hero could be any race, and his creators opted to project their imaginations beyond the mirror. And though it’s almost impossible to reverse-engineer who did what in a co-directing situation, one has to imagine that some of the film’s cultural perspective owes to co-director Powers (whose play, “One Night in Miami,” also reaches screen this fall). Judging by Mr. Mittens, the movie’s feline sidekick, the crew was light on cat lovers.

In any case, the unsung hero here — the heart of “Soul,” if you will — can be found in the music. From Betty Boop to the Pink Panther, jazz has shaped and inspired the medium of animation (especially in its more avant garde experiments). Pixar rekindles that connection, enlisting Jon Batiste to create the jazz portion of the score — from the fleet-fingered, Keith Jarrett-like improvisations Joe performs to the vibe of city life itself — while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross delivered the New Agey sound of the before- and after-life.

It all blends together beautifully, a marriage of Pixar’s square, safe, feel-good sensibility with what could be described as the “real world” — and one that, much as “Inside Out” anthropomorphized the mind, will leave audiences young and old imagining their own souls as glowing idiosyncratic cartoon characters. And that’s just what the Docter ordered.

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, Nov. 22, 2020. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 100 MIN.

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‘Soul’ Review: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers Deliver Pixar’s Most Mature Movie Yet

The new Pixar movie isn’t inappropriate for children, but they’re not the target audience for a film that ponders what it means to be alive.

Part of Pixar’s rep rests on how they make movies with crossover appeal. They’re not lowest common denominator fare designed to keep kids occupied for 90 minutes while parents get a brief reprieve. Instead, they’re the gold standard in animated family movies as they appeal to kids and adults alike, and while the studio’s output isn’t quite as consistent as it was in their heyday, they still know how to crank out emotional powerhouses like Coco and Inside Out . Their latest film, Pete Docter and Kemp Powers ’ gorgeously realized Soul finally decides to shift the subject matter squarely towards older audiences. Younger viewers will still have fun with the humor (and Soul has some of the best gags in Pixar's entire filmography), but Soul is primarily concerned with what it means to be alive, what makes our lives worth living, and if too much is accorded to notions of “purpose” rather than simply soaking in the majesty of life itself. Visually audacious and complimented by an Oscar-worthy score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross , Soul is as emotional as the best Pixar movies while achieving a level of maturity that previous efforts haven’t quite hit.

Joe ( Jamie Foxx ) has spent his adult life toiling away as a music teacher even though his dream—and he believes his purpose—is to play jazz professionally. He finally gets his big break to join the Dorothea Williams Quartet only to leave his triumphant audition and fall down an open manhole. Sent to the Great Beyond, Joe’s soul isn’t ready to pass on, and so he escapes only to stumble into The Great Before where souls prepare for life on Earth. Joe masquerades as a mentor figure to the obstinate and sardonic soul 22 ( Tina Fey ), and the two strike a deal. Joe will help 22 find her “spark”, she’ll get an “Earth pass”, and then she’ll give the pass to Joe so he can return to his body and she can stay in the Great Before where she’s comfortable with her existence.

Soul wisely doesn’t get too hung up on the metaphysics of it all. The world Docter and Powers have created has its own rules of entrance and exits, but Soul largely adheres more to a system similar to The Good Place where it doesn’t go with any particular belief system, but rather builds its own kind of philosophically and theologically blended afterlife/beforelife to better emphasizes the themes about the meaning of life. Whether it’s getting as specific as why 22 talks with a middle-aged woman’s voice or as broad as some of the plot developments that happen after the first act (which I won’t spoil here since they haven’t been shared in the trailers), Soul always comes back to an exploration of what it means for Joe to be alive and why 22 thinks that life on Earth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Pixar has attempted these weightier themes before, and sometimes they really pay off, but there are times when the lighthearted nature of the plot doesn’t quite match the maturity of the themes. Monsters University is a delightful and underrated romp, but it’s also a movie about how not everyone is cracked up to be a star athlete, but coaches have their place too. Cars 3 is a bizarre story about what it means to wrestle with your legacy and what you pass on to the next generation, but it doesn’t really work because the characters are talking cars. Even a film as beautiful and complex as Inside Out all comes back to the emotions of an adolescent girl and what it means for her to start growing up.

By comparison, Soul is about a middle-aged man who has been chasing one dream his entire life, and he believes that accomplishing that dream is what stands between him and his life having meaning. A younger viewer isn’t really going to understand that, but it hits like a sledgehammer to an adult who looks at their life and their choices and wonders if their life is only as good as their professional achievements. After all, if you have a spark and a talent, and that talent goes unfulfilled professionally, then have you wasted your life? If we talk about people being “productive members of society”, then is your value only in what you produce? These are really heavy questions, and Soul explores them in a thoughtful and sublime manner.

The audacity of the subject matter is matched by the scope of the direction. Yes, Soul is yet another Pixar “buddy” movie, but that plot basis still allows plenty of room the explore the ideas in a unique way. The film shines brightest in its depiction of the soul world, and I’m a little upset that my first experience with the movie was on my television rather than the big screen. What Docter and Powers do with the visuals here is extraordinary, and while the functions of the soul world are clearly drawn from a variety of sources, the depiction is unlike anything really seen in an animated film of this scale. Coupled with Reznor & Ross melding their spellbinding score with jazz compositions from Jon Batiste , and you have an experience that stands apart in Pixar’s vaunted filmography.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Soul will make its debut on Disney+, and that’s an awkward home for this movie. I don’t expect Disney executives to know or care what their movies are about, but at the end of the day you have a movie about living life to the fullest in a year where we were all trapped indoors, away from our loved ones, and over a million people have died from the disease worldwide. Maybe other family films are good for plopping down in front of the new streaming service and forgetting about the cares of the world, but Soul is not one of them. Nevertheless, Soul is a must-see movie that rings bittersweet in 2020, but as the film shows, even those bittersweet moments are a beautiful part of life.

Soul arrives on Disney+ on December 25th.

The Critical Movie Critics

Movie Review: Soul (2020)

Why am I here? What is the meaning of my existence? What happens when I die? What is the mind? What is my personality? Why am I? Deep and profound questions, well suited to a long cinematic chin-stroker such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Terrence Malick’s “ The Tree of Life .” Or a swift, snappy animated comedy adventure about a jazz musician. Wait, what?

Sure enough, Pixar have done it again. In Pete Docter’s Soul , these weighty questions are explored in a dazzling and sublime ride of visual imagination. Jazz musician and teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx, “ Baby Driver ”) finds himself heading for the Great Beyond, his soul confronting the end of his life just as he found what he believes to be the reason for it. Rather than face the Great Beyond, Joe flees into the Great Before, a training ground where souls develop personalities before they join bodies. In a desperate attempt to get back to his body on Earth, Joe attempts to mentor Soul 22 (voiced by Tina Fey, “ Muppets Most Wanted ”), a soul with no spark who cares about nothing. Cue hilarity, bonding and (literally) life lessons.

Anyone with a fondness for creativity such as art, performance or, of course, music, will find Joe relatable, chasing after his big chance for years before finally getting it, only to lose out on this chance due to unexpected events. Notably, there are sequences in the film that express a transcendent experience, in Joe’s case related to music. Crucially, however, an understanding of, or passion for, music is not essential, as the feeling being expressed is intangible and universal while also being unique. This is a remarkable balance to strike, and Docter along with co-director Kemp Powers do so by trusting in the image. Soul provides dialogue exposition for the soul dimensions, often delivered to a comically uncomprehending Joe, but sweeping pan shots, shifts in lighting and the fluid motion of Joe’s fingers on the piano create the sense of an elevated experience. This is cinema in its highest form, demonstrating the limitless potential of animation especially, as Soul emphasizes that an experience, of many varieties, can take someone to another place. Along the way, the film shows a variety of such experiences, as well as the reverse in the form of lost souls, featuring in sequences that are as moving as the death of Bambi’s mother or Mufasa in “The Lion King.” Throughout, the creativity of the animation is spellbinding, making the otherworldly places as well as the souls themselves completely believable and engaging.

For Pixar to deal with such subject matter is not without precedent. “ WALL-E ” used robots and programming to pose questions over the meaning of existence; “ Toy Story 3 ” confronted mortality and obsolescence; “ Inside Out ” told audiences of all ages that it is OK to be sad and that growth and change are healthy. Soul is, therefore, a continuation of the studio’s experiments with the medium of animation. The Great Before is rendered (and explained to be rendered) in such a way as to be comprehensible to Joe’s mind, and therefore the viewer’s (and of course the creators, who are themselves only human). This makes the spiritual realm charming and funny but also wondrous. The various counselors, all called Jerry because reasons, appear out of the surrounding space, overtly other and yet understandable. Docter and Powers, along with their fellow screenwriter Mike Jones, use a tried and tested method of presenting the organization of the spirit world as highly bureaucratic, recalling “Beetlejuice,” “O Heavenly Dog!” and especially “A Matter of Life and Death,” a clear influence on Soul . This bureaucracy is the source of much humor in the film, as records, statistics, training techniques and dealing with difficult colleagues receive ample attention. Furthermore, an unexpected development in the second act leads to some fantastic physical comedy that echoes “All of Me” among others. Many lessons are learned, some involving further colorful characters including Moonwind (voiced by Graham Norton, “ I Could Never Be Your Woman ”) and Curley (voiced by Questlove, “ Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest ”). Meanwhile, Joe and 22 make for a great comedy double act in the spirit of Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, Dory and Marlin, Joy and Sadness. All the voice performances are great, the characters richly nuanced and detailed.

In addition, Soul deserves attention for being the first Pixar film to feature an African-American lead. It is notable that Powers’ involvement increased from consultant to co-writer to Pixar’s first African American co-director, but at no point does the film make an emphatic political point. Rather, it allows the artistry to express the political progression by making Soul partially a film about the black community. This includes the setting, the supporting characters, an insightful scene that takes place in a barber’s, and of course the use of jazz. The film has been criticized for “whitewashing” blackness, as the soul figures are bereft of color. But it is notable that Joe’s appearance is retained in his soul, including his hat and glasses, whereas 22 and the other trainee souls are essentially blank, rather than presenting the color of white people as some kind of default. This design choice reinforces the film’s conceit that personality shapes appearance rather than the other way around, and people need to be seen as people, each with personalities and their own unique spark. In terms of progressive representation, imagine if that was how we saw everyone, as a person, an individual, each capable of our own extraordinary contribution.

Tagged: cat , death , jazz , musician , relationships , self-discovery

The Critical Movie Critics

Dr. Vincent M. Gaine is a film and television researcher. His first book, Existentialism and Social Engagement in the Films of Michael Mann was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2011. His work on film and media has been published in Cinema Journal and The Journal of Technology , Theology and Religion , as well as edited collections including The 21st Century Superhero and The Directory of World Cinema .

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Pixar's 'Soul' is getting rave reviews, but it left me cringing up until the very last minute

I wasn't sure if I liked " Soul ," Pixar's latest film, up until the final scene.

This isn't easy to say. I'm a big Disney fan and went into "Soul" expecting great things. But when watching the film, I felt like the studio had taken a few steps backward after the release of Disney's 2018 blockbuster "Black Panther."

"Soul" introduces Pixar's first Black lead in Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who longs to be a jazz musician. It follows Joe as the down-on-his-luck music teacher gets a big break at a jazz club.

As he prepares for the gig, his life is cut shockingly short. We watch as Joe, who wants nothing more than to get his life back to live out his dream, is paired with a bratty "unborn" soul (Tina Fey) who has the ability to go to Earth but doesn't want to take the trip because she can't see the point in living.

In its final moments, "Soul" is set to sacrifice its Black lead so a white woman can go and live out her life on Earth. Joe decides he's fine with dying because he was able to live out a dream. As the movie's about to wrap up, however, Joe's given a second chance to live because of his good deed. Good for ol' Joe, right?

Despite Pixar's gorgeous animation (if you've ever been to Astoria in New York, the film captures it perfectly, down to the 7 train ) and beautiful music from the "Late Show with Stephen Colbert" bandleader Jon Batiste, my entire experience watching "Soul" was a roller coaster of cringe and concern because of the film's creative choices.

First, Joe is killed the moment he gets his big break, within the first 10 minutes of the film. What kind of message does that send to young children watching this film who see themselves in Joe?

Second, "Soul" steps into a dangerous trope that has become frequent in animation with leads of color. After Joe "dies," we see him turn into a green blob — a pattern we've seen of turning Black characters into creatures. Sadly, the co-director Pete Docter told journalists during a virtual press conference Insider attended that he wasn't even aware of the trope until working on this film.

It doesn't help that "Soul" nearly became a white-savior movie.

When Joe winds up in another area called "the great before," he gets paired with Fey's character, 22. When Joe finally returns to his body 40 minutes into the film, 22 accidentally goes back to Earth too. Joe doesn't wind up back in his body though — 22 does. Yup, a white woman is put in a Black man's body.

Who thought it was a good idea to put a white woman in the body of a Black man? And not just any woman, but Fey, who earlier this year requested that episodes of her show "30 Rock" be pulled from streaming services because of blackface ? The same show that still has episodes featuring brownface . Hearing her "trapped" in Foxx's animated body just felt insensitive, especially after this year.

Predictably, 22 eventually leaves Earth so Joe can continue living. It raises another question: Why does a dying Black man have to help a white woman live? (I have a hunch this last bit came from some of Docter's personal experience after he told Insider the inspiration for "Soul" came after feeling a lack of satisfaction with the success of "Inside Out.")

That's not all. There are other cringeworthy moments.

It happens when someone goes searching for Joe on Earth. Knowing he's trying to cheat death, a character mistakes another Black man for Joe and traumatizes him. Being mistaken for another Black person simply because they're the same race is a common microaggression .

Yes, I know Pixar brought in a brain trust and added the talented Kemp Powers ("One Night in Miami") late in the production of this film as a writer and co-director. Perhaps Pixar tapped a Black director when it got in over its head with the subject material. (Powers told journalists he joined the film when it was in " pretty rough form .")

That's not to say everything about "Soul" isn't great.

There's a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly captures what it feels like to get lost in the zone — a feeling that artists, musicians, and writers may relate to most deeply — where everything else just fades away when you're caught up in your passion.

An hour into the film, there's another beautiful moment between Joe and his mother (Phylicia Rashad) during a conversation about pursuing dreams even if they may fail.

I wish the film focused on and channeled more of its energy into that relationship and Joe's own life rather than his bump-in with 22.

Overall, the film has a positive message about not taking your life for granted. "Soul" reminds us that, instead of only pursuing a dream, purpose can also be about slowing down and enjoying the simple things life has to offer, whether that's the feeling of your toes in the sand or taking a bite of your favorite pie.

"Soul" is sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes . With so many other critics enjoying this film, why wasn't I?

Perhaps "Soul" had such positive reviews because the majority of the 33 critics who reviewed the film early , from October to November, listed on the review aggregator are white. Shouldn't at least half of the reviews for Pixar's first film with a Black lead come from critics of color?

Also, Pixar's first Black-led film should celebrate a Black man's experience and focus solely on his dreams and desires. Instead, Joe's life takes a back seat in order for a white woman to figure out what she wants from life.

If that doesn't speak more about our society, I don't know what does.

Would I want to watch "Soul" with a child on Christmas morning? Only if you want to have some long conversations about death, the meaning of life, and a little bit of white privilege afterward.

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movie reviews soul

Content Caution

An animated Black music teacher stands before his class in Soul.

In Theaters

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Movie review.

Life begins … when?

You look at your newsfeed any day of the week, and you know what an explosive question that is, even superficially. But dig deeper, and the answer grows even more complex. To live is not the same as to have a life . Did our life begin with conception? Our first conscious thoughts? Our first memories? Did it begin in kindergarten? In middle school? When we fell in love? Had children? Found our purpose?

Joe Gardner is a grown man with a job, a New York City apartment and a mustache. He’s alive. But he’s still waiting for life to begin.

And then, one day, it does.

The day was no different than most, at first. Joe, a talented jazz pianist working as a middle school music teacher, is teaching a bevy of students how to carry a tune—or, at least, to find the tune’s zip code. But then Curly, an old student of his, calls and asks if he’d like to sit in on a session with Dorthea Williams, the legendary jazz musician.

Would he?! Joe races to the club where Dorthea is to play. She’s skeptical at first: “So,” she says. “We’re down to middle school band teachers now.” But when his fingers touch the ivory, her doubts drain away. She tells him the show starts at nine. Be there at seven.

Joe feels as though his life is finally beginning. He floats out of the club, as happy as he’s ever been.

And he promptly falls through an open manhole.

Next thing he knows, Joe’s riding an escalator to the Great Beyond, a massive, white-bright something , where the souls of the newly departed go.

But Joe isn’t ready for the Great Beyond. “I’m not going to die the very day I got my shot!” he protests. As the escalator slowly moves upward, Joe bounds down, down, down until finally—

Pop! He finds himself in a strange place filled with adorable new souls and caretakers named Jerry. It’s not the Great Beyond , but the Great Before , where souls are prepared for their lives on earth. (Actually, it’s now called a “youth seminar,” Jerry explains. “Rebranding.”)

There Joe finds soul No. 22, who wants to be born just about as much as Joe wants to be dead. That is, not at all.

When does life begin? Seems like neither Joe nor 22 have a clue. But here, at the end/beginning of all things, perhaps they’ll find out.

Positive Elements

Joe’s given an opportunity to look back on his life, and he’s appalled with how little he did with his. “My life was meaningless,” he says.

But that’s not quite true.

The movie delicately suggests that he made a huge difference on some of the people he came in contact with: Curly says he never would’ve gone into music had it not been for Joe’s teaching. Another student, thinking about quitting, goes to Joe’s apartment in the hopes that he’ll talk her out of it. For Joe, teaching has always been something he’s had to do. But moviegoers see the impact he’s made on others. And even when he’s technically dead, he still makes a difference in 22’s pre-existent life, too.

That’s one of Soul’s overarching themes, in fact. In our celebrity-bedazzled world, we imagine that the only lives that matter are those that make a huge, splashy impact. Soul suggests there’s nothing wrong with wanting or having that sort of impact. But it also reminds us that those of us who live pretty normal lives can have an oversized impact on those around us, as well. And even when we fall into lives we never expected, there’s a joy and nobility in that, too.

For instance: We meet Dez, Joe’s barber, and learn that he never wanted to be a barber at all. He was hoping to be a veterinarian. But when his daughter got sick, he fell into the business. Joe feels sorry for him at first, but Dez rejects that pity out of hand. “I’m as happy as a clam, my man.” He sees his work as a way to change and improve lives. He says he makes his clients happy. “And make them handsome,” he adds.

Spiritual Elements

Let’s start with the movie’s name: Soul . That metaphysical concept is integral to what the movie’s about. We’ll need to spend some time here.

Joe spends much of the time in the movie as a soul, uncoupled from his own body. As such, Soul tells us that we’re more than just our physical constructs—more than just bone and blood and a little bit of brain matter.

There’s an inherent spirituality at work here, further emphasized by the Great Beyond, the Great Before and some metaphysical planes we see. The movie never takes us into the Great Beyond, so we don’t know what lies on the other side of that brilliant white light. But clearly plenty of souls (who aren’t Joe) are quite happy to be headed there.

The Great Before is more ticklish to deal with.

The idea that a soul exists before the body’s creation isn’t new: Lots of religions embrace that concept, and the Great Before feels a little like the Jewish concept of the Guf , or “treasury of souls,” which serves as a bit of a holding house for souls waiting to be born.

In contrast, most orthodox expressions of Christian theology have rejected the notion that the soul’s existence predates conception. Thus, the ideas about the afterlife and beforelife we see in Soul share little common ground with the most traditional forms of Christian teaching.

So what do we see in this story? All of the souls in this story are paired with a “tutor” before heading down to Earth, and soul No. 22 has been paired with plenty of teachers already—including the Catholic Mother Teresa, the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the religiously adventurous psychologist Carl Jung. And while you could interpret the caretakers of the Great Before as angels of a sort, they come across here more like incredibly compassionate daycare workers. (There’s also a soul accountant named Terry, through whom we learn that the afterlife’s tabulation system isn’t always spot on.)

Joe and 22 also come across some spiritual planes where only the souls of the living can go. One is “the Zone,” the place where people go when they’re particularly inspired or transfixed by what they’re doing; another is a vast wasteland where the obsessed roam endlessly and sadly. Some living visitors to these planes—practitioners of various Eastern and New Age meditative disciplines who call themselves “mystics without borders”—explain that one state can lead to another. The things that we love (and that send us to the Zone) can become obsessions themselves.

All of these metaphysical layers are meant to convey some important thoughts on what it means to live in our very tangible world, by the way—not serve as a roadmap for theological truth. Still, it’s good to be prepared for some potentially robust spiritual discussions as you unpack this story’s ideas and symbolism.

Elsewhere, we see that souls can switch bodies—comically possessing them, as it were—another idea that orthodox Christian teaching rejects, by the way. A cat is shown to have a soul, too.

Joe wonders whether he’s in heaven. When a Jerry tells him that he’s not, strictly speaking, he then asks if he’s in the other place. We hear references to chakras, chanting and meditation.

Sexual Content

Joe’s mind, we learn, is mainly filled with thoughts about jazz. But at least a corner of it is devoted to someone named Lisa. And when he and 22 find themselves back on earth in earthly bodies, 22 encourages him to rekindle what seems to be a long-dormant relationship. (Joe insists he doesn’t have the time.) 

Joe rips the back of his trousers, revealing underwear.

Violent Content

Joe dies, of course—falling through that an open manhole after unintentionally escaping a great many situations (falling bricks, speeding cars) that could’ve spelled an even more premature doom. We just see the guy’s body vanish through the hole, though later we do see his body—barely hanging on—in a hospital bed.

New, disembodied souls resemble squishy little balls, and they’re sometimes thrown or smashed. But the souls, not having any bodies (much less nerve-endings to tweak), find it all rather fun.

A monstrous thing swallows a soul whole. A metaphysical ship sinks. We see some pratfalls and physical humor here and there. There’s a suggestion that 22 just might become a pyromaniac.

Crude or Profane Language

When Joe first arrives at the Great Before, he asks if he’s landed in “H-E-double hockey sticks?” The unborn souls around him, though, apparently know how to spell: They bounce around, repeating the word “hell” as a Jerry tries to explain to Joe where he is.  Someone describes earth as a “hellish planet.” Besides that, we just hear a couple of uses of the word “butt.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Jazz clubs are typically drinking establishments, and I assume that’s true of the one that Dorthea Williams and her band are playing. We don’t see anyone drink, though.

Other Negative Elements

Immortal souls have no bodies, which means that food does them little good. Joe and 22 demonstrate this by each devouring a piece of pizza and having it eject—still fully formed—from their other end.

Joe lies, and both he and 22 try to game the system to get what they want. A joke alludes to body odor. Joe takes a shower, and someone mentions his rear.

I’ll just say it: A bad Pixar movie is about as common as a Latin-speaking lemming.

It’s not just the studio’s craftsmanship: It’s the storytellers’ ambition . Not content with doling out beautiful ruminations about grief and love and responsibility, Pixar dove directly into the world of emotion and feeling itself with Inside Out back in 2015. (Was it really that long ago?) Now, the animation pioneers have moved on from the heart and into the Soul .

But while the movie does indeed paint its story using many a spiritual and metaphysical brush, Soul isn’t aiming to save anyone’s. It’s far more concerned with this world than the next one, delving into one big question: What makes us tick? Or maybe more fairly, What makes us feel alive?

Neither Joe nor 22 really understand what “life” is, or what it should be. Joe has spent most of his waiting for one big moment, letting so many little ones slip by. No. 22 has never lived at all, and she can’t figure out why she’d even want to. Both characters have, in their own ways, locked themselves into a closet of secure sameness . They need to learn from each other how to use the key.

Certainly, Christian families will want to be aware of the movie’s spiritual elements before deciding to watch; and you should be prepared to talk about the story’s provocative ideas afterward. As noted, the story’s spiritual conceits here have little connection to traditional Christian understandings of these important questions.

Still, Soul strives to help us remember that life itself is a blessing, even when it doesn’t go as we planned. It tells us that lives of service can be just as rewarding as lives on stage. It encourages us to look at the world’s humblest things, be it a maple seed or a hunk of pizza crust, as something amazing—perhaps even miraculous in its own right.

Soul tells us that life isn’t just a matter of a beating heart, of drawing breath, of shuffling through each second as if we had an eternity of them. Our lives are a gift. And Christians watching this film can take it a step farther: Our lives are a gift from God.

How appropriate that his movie should be released on Disney+ on Christmas Day. It tells us that very moment, after all, is a present—and one we should open with glee.

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Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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Screen Rant

Soul review: a heartfelt, if not entirely impactful pixar movie.

Soul isn't Pixar's finest or most resonant film, but its beautiful animation and soundtrack, paired with fun characters make for an enjoyable watch.

Since its inception in the 90s, Pixar has become synonymous with beautifully written and animated feature films, especially those that appeal to all ages, and its latest of these is Soul . Written and directed by one of Pixar's most storied filmmakers, Pete Docter ( Inside Out , Up ), from a script he co-wrote with Pixar up-and-comer Mike Jones and co-director Kemp Powers ( One Night In Miami ), Soul is the second original Pixar movie of 2020. The studio tends to alternate sequels and originals, with 2017's Coco being the last original prior to 2020's Onward and Soul . But while Soul is a solid Pixar movie, it's not quite the best the studio has to offer.  Soul isn't Pixar's finest or most resonant film, but its beautiful animation and soundtrack, paired with fun characters make for an enjoyable watch.

The story of Soul follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher who's more focused on his dream of becoming a professional jazz player than on job security, much to the frustration of his mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad). When he finally has the chance to play with renowned saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe feels like his life is finally starting to begin - but then he dies. Instead of going to the Great Beyond as he's meant to, Joe escapes and finds himself in the Great Before, where he accidentally becomes mentor to 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who's struggled to find their Spark and begin their life on Earth. As they go on an adventure to secure their own futures, 22 and Joe end up teaching each other a great deal about life and what exactly makes it worth living.

Related:  Every New Movie & TV Show Coming To Disney+ In December 2020

With a premise like Soul's , in which a man is so consumed by his life's purpose that he refuses to die, the filmmakers have a chance to explore what makes life worth living. While there is plenty of that throughout Soul , the movie sometimes gets bogged down in its own mythology - like, for example, the Spark that 22 needs to find to be ready to start their life. But where Soul sets itself up to have answers in regards to its mythology, the third act seems to simply shrug and chalk certain things up to the unknowable, which is more frustrating than anything else. Docter does infuse Soul with a message about the meaning of life and finding purpose, but it's messy and only made muddier by the questions the movie sets up then fails to answer. The result is Soul loses much of its emotional impact, with the third act playing out more like a rush to the finish line of the story without giving as much weight to the themes and emotional throughline of the film.

For their parts, Foxx and Fey are a great comedic duo in Soul , which has a great deal of humor and plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments. While there are other notable characters in Soul - including Rachel House's Terry and Donnell Rawlings as Dez - the movie truly belongs to Foxx's Joe and Fey's 22. The pair carry much of the emotional weight of the film, making it as impactful as it can be. They're helped by the animation, which is crisp and clean (and would have benefited from being viewed on a big screen), portraying a realistic, if perhaps sanitized, depiction of New York City. Further, Soul is heightened by the soundtrack, created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which gives the movie an additional depth. Altogether, the elements come together to create a sweet and heartfelt movie in Soul .

One of Soul's  most unique aspects is its exploration of its worlds, both the Great Before and Joe's New York City, (though the time split between them does beg the question of whether it would've been better to stick to either one). Soul is also the rare animated movie that bucks the trend of following a Black lead character but having that character turn into something else (a frog in Disney's The Princess and the Frog , a pigeon in Spies in Disguise ) - sort of. In certain ways, Soul avoids this trend, but it arguably doesn't avoid it entirely either, which may be frustrating to viewers. It's another way in which Soul has a great deal of potential, but fails to fully live up to it.

Ultimately,  Soul is still a fun and funny movie with some of the emotional depth that has set Pixar's films apart from other animated features. While it may not be the most impactful or poignant Pixar movie for some, it will no doubt strike a chord with others, particularly with its message of living life to its fullest. That theme could be seen as incongruous to the reality of living in a pandemic, or inspirational in light of all that's been lost in 2020 - it largely depends on the viewer's own perspective. Nevertheless, with Soul releasing on Disney+, it will provide some easily accessible and much-needed light-hearted entertainment this winter. Any fans of Pixar or anyone looking for new movies to watch this holiday season would do well with checking out Soul .

Next:  Soul Trailer Reveals New Details About Pixar's Before Life World

Soul starts streaming on Disney+ Friday, December 25th. It is 100 minutes long and rated PG for thematic elements and some language.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!

Key Release Dates

Soul features Pixar’s first African-American leading role.

Soul review – Fantasia meets A Matter of Life or Death

A jazz-loving music teacher ends up in the beforelife in this existential Pixar beauty from the director of Up and Inside Out

T his typically ambitious Pixar animation comes on like a fever-dream cross between Disney’s Fantasia and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death , with a bizarre hint of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones thrown in for good measure. A tale of a music teacher who loses his life but discovers his soul, it’s a visually sumptuous riot of ideas, pitched somewhere between a playful musical, a divine comedy and a metaphysical drama.

Just as the Minions movie opened to the delightful helium sounds of its heroes happily “ba-ba-BA”-ing the famous Universal theme, so Soul begins with the distinctive Disney anthem being jazzily murdered by a discordant school band. If music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) could wish upon a star, he’d wish to be somewhere else, preferably tinkling the ivories at a swinging club. Joe’s dream comes true when he gets a late-in-the-day call asking him to sit in with hip jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). The audition goes well – so well, in fact, that Joe leaves with his head in the clouds and promptly falls to his death down an open manhole.

So far, so slapstick. Yet finding himself on a moving stairway to the Great Beyond, and determined not to miss the chance of a lifetime, Joe runs the other way and winds up in the Great Before , a dreamy neverland where protean souls are assigned “unique and individual personalities” before being sent to Earth. Here, he meets 22 (Tina Fey), who has refused to take her place in the real world despite the best efforts of a string of teachers, including Gandhi, Lincoln and Mother Teresa (“I made her cry”). And thus it falls to the disembodied Joe to help 22 find her spark, with unexpected body-swapping results.

Co-written and directed by Pete Docter, Soul shares many of the traits of his previous outings, Up and Inside Out . Like the latter, it addresses existential issues (the construction of personality; nature v nurture) through the accessible language of animation – like a theologically fired revisiting of the strip cartoon The Numskulls . And like Up , in which an old man rediscovers the meaning of life after turning his house into a helium balloon-powered airship, it ties its redemptive message to a bizarrely convoluted plot that occasionally trips over its own narrative shoelaces.

It’s easy to become blase about the visual brilliance, both technical and artistic, of Pixar’s output, but Soul really is a treat for the eyes. From the almost photo-realist clarity of the earthbound scenes (the jazz club interiors give Damien Chazelle’s work on The Eddy a run for its money) to the otherworldly eeriness of the out-of-body segments, it’s a pleasure to watch. Witness the tangible physical beauty of Joe’s fingers flitting across the keyboards as music transports him to another dimension, juxtaposed with the wonderful strangeness of creatures from another world that resemble trippy line drawings of Fred Flintstone as reimagined by Picasso.

With an original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste (the ambassadorial house-band leader for Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show ), Soul has musical pizzazz to spare. Foxx, who won an Oscar playing Ray Charles, lends emotional depth to Pixar’s first African American leading role, with co-director/writer Kemp Powers (along with consultants such as anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole ) ensuring that the film’s cultural reference points strike just the right note.

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'Soul' is a 'gorgeous muddle' filled with artistry, charm and a tangled plot


In this article

Pixar has done it again. Disney 's Academy Award-winning studio is set to release its latest triumph on the company's streaming service on Christmas Day.

"Soul," the 23rd feature from Pixar, focuses on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher with dreams of playing piano professionally. After securing a gig playing with a famed jazz quartet, Joe falls down a manhole, loses consciousness and enters an ethereal plane that is both afterlife and beforelife.

Desperate to get back to Earth, Joe teams up with a not-yet-born soul called 22 (Tina Fey) to return to his body. However, 22 accidentally winds up in Joe's body, and Joe's soul finds its way into the hospital therapy cat Mr. Mittens. Now, it's a race against time for Joe to get his body back.

"Soul" is a "gorgeous muddle," BBC reviewer Nicholas Barber wrote.

This sentiment was shared by many critics. While beautifully animated and filled with a gorgeous musical score, "Soul" retreads some of the ground that Pixar explored in previous films "Coco" and "Inside Out."

Its plot is convoluted, a knot of several stories and ideas that sometimes mesh together and sometimes contradict each other, critics said. Still, the film's heart is what has earned it a 97% Fresh rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes from 99 reviews.

Here's what critics thought of "Soul" ahead of its debut on Disney+ on Friday.

Dan Rubins, Slant

The music of "Soul" has been widely praised by reviewers. The score is bifurcated between the trippy, otherworldly sounds of the ethereal plane and the melodic jazz-inspired world of New York City.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — primary members of the band Nine Inch Nails who also composed scores for HBO's "Watchmen" series — handle the sounds heard in the world of souls. Jon Batiste, often seen alongside Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" with his band Stay Human, arranged the jazz pieces.

"Not since 'Fantasia' has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows," Rubins said in his review for Slant. "As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), 'Soul' gives itself over fully to his music."

"For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it's jazz set to animation rather than the other way around," he wrote.

Read the full review from Slant.

Rafer Guzman, Newsday

"'Soul' is a frustrating combination of artistry, charm and a Pixar formula that is starting to feel tuckered out," Guzman wrote in his review of the film for Newsday.

Guzman praised the film for its stunning visuals and score, but said its similarity to story lines explored in "Inside Out" and "Coco" made it feel "a little too familiar."

"In the end, the film suffers from life-lesson overload: Chase your dreams, seize the day and smell the roses, but remember that what's important is right in front of you. It's enough wisdom to make a kid's eyes glaze over," he wrote.

"It can feel ungrateful to complain about Pixar, which has given us so many movies to love," he said. "The studio might be wise, however, to focus on renewing its spark."

Read the full review from Newsday .

Nicholas Barber, BBC

The one resounding criticism of "Soul" is that its plot seems overly complicated.

"There is definitely a classic story in there somewhere, but it's almost buried by all the ideas that have been piled on top of it," Barber wrote.

"[Pete] Docter could have made a bittersweet musical about a frustrated teacher's love of jazz, or a zany metaphysical comedy about what goes on behind the scenes of creation," he said. "He could even have made a decent farce about a man in a cat's body. But because he tries to do everything at once, he doesn't give either the astral plane or the real world its due."

Docter co-directed "Soul" with Kemp Powers. He is the chief creative officer at Pixar and his tenure with the company dates all the way back to "Toy Story" in 1995. He won Academy Awards for "Up" and "Inside Out."

"The more you think about it, the more of a muddle 'Soul' seems to be," Barber said. "But what a gorgeous muddle it is. It may not be wholly satisfying, but it is exhilarating in its ambition, superbly animated, and brimming with affection for its characters and their milieu."

Read the full review from BBC.

Dan Kois, Slate

"It's in the movie's most personal and specific storytelling beats — its interaction with Black culture — that 'Soul' delivers more potent storytelling," Kois wrote in his review for Slate.

While "Soul" is Pixar's 23rd theatrical film, this is the first time that a Black character has been the main protagonist. Critics praised the filmmakers for their depiction of Black culture, shining a light on it without indulging in cliche.

"Joe's difficult relationship with his mother and her high expectations is touching and, when it's resolved, inspiring; the movie's treatment of jazz as both a dynamic art form and a Black cultural touchstone is affectionate and energetic; a scene inside a Black barbershop transcends the cinematic familiarity of the setting to provide a loving look at a cultural institution that also pushes the plot forward," he said.

Read the full review from Slate .

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of CNBC and owns Rotten Tomatoes.

Disney's big rally makes it hard to bet against the market in 2021, says Ritholtz's Josh Brown

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

movie reviews soul

Movie Review: Hollow ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ lacks soul, sense

June 7, 2023 Updated Thu., June 8, 2023 at 2:59 p.m.

The “Transformers” film franchise, spawned in 2007 with Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was one of the first straight-faced blockbuster franchises based on a toy (and a 1980s cartoon series). It is now, astonishingly, seven films deep with the release of “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” which is both a prequel to “Transformers” and a sequel to 2018’s “Bumblebee,” which was set in 1987. “Rise of the Beasts,” set in 1994, is also based on the “Transformers: Beast Wars” media franchise of comic books and anime, which introduced the Maximal characters, alien robots that look like giant animals, not shape-shifting cars.

Got all that? It’s OK if you don’t, because the screenplay – by Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, with a story by Harold – will repeat the pertinent information ad nauseam, until you never want to hear the phrase “trans-warp key” again.

The basics are as such: A giant, planet-eating dark god known as Unicron needs a gleaming key that has been hidden by the Maximals (reminder, those are the beastie bots) in order to gobble as many planets as he’d like, Earth included. What does the key do? Honestly, who knows, it’s just the necessary thingamajig over which the primary players can scrabble and fight throughout a two-hour span.

When an aspiring archaeologist, Elena (Dominique Fishback), accidentally uncovers half of the key hidden in an ancient Incan bird statue and triggers the beacon, the benevolent Autobots, stranded on Earth and led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), send their new human friend Noah (Anthony Ramos) to retrieve it. Noah, an Army vet looking for work to support his sick younger brother, got caught up with the Autobots while trying to boost a snazzy Porsche, the Autobot Mirage, voiced by a surprisingly lively Pete Davidson. Thus, the two kids from Brooklyn have to team up with the Autobots to prevent Unicron and his minions the Terrorcons – including a particularly nasty one known as Scourge (Peter Dinklage) – from feasting on Earth and destroying the planet. Crashy-crashy action ensues.

Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies brought an almost fetishistic approach to auto bodies; he is a filmmaker who understands machines better than human beings.

In the first couple of films (there were wildly diminishing returns in his five-film run), there was a certain sensory satisfaction in all that was shiny and chrome, the clicks and whirs of metallic pieces sliding into place with an almost ASMR-like tingle. Though his camera’s gaze at star Megan Fox was icky and leering at best, his approach to the mechanic spectacle of the Autobots was undeniably sensual.

In “Bumbleebee,” director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson went for cutesy and kiddish, riffing on 1980s teen movies and turning the yellow Transformer into a cuddly golden retriever type, infusing the series with a sense of heart. Now, Steven Caple Jr., who has the gritty indie film “The Land” and the boxing sequel “Creed II” under his belt, has to establish himself as an artist within this sprawling blockbuster franchise. He doesn’t go all in on heartstring-tugging or mechanophilia, as his strengths lie in establishing a sense of place and time.

The best parts of “Rise of the Beasts” are Caple’s evocation of 1990s New York City, the soundtrack pumping with classic East Coast hip-hop including the Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J and Black Sheep.

Too bad the movie takes place predominantly in Peru, where Ramos and Fishback have to run around tracking down artifacts and codes in some half-baked “Indiana Jones” subplot and attempting to express real emotions about their new Transformers pals. Stoic indigenous Peruvians look on while the Autobots, Terrorcons and Maximals face off on a dusty, gray volcano (thankfully, there’s only minimal damage done to Machu Picchu), in some of the most visually uninspired and shallow action sequences of the franchise.

All the while, Optimus Prime repeatedly intones some form of “protect the key,” “get the key,” “we need the key.” Key this, key that, how about this screenplay keep us entertained? It took five screenwriters to come up with this utter nonsense that has all the dramatic intrigue and emotional depth of a “Transformers” Saturday morning cartoon. The result is that “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” feels like a film that is at war with itself, as Caple tries to balance character work with the profoundly silly Autobot lore, which talents such as Michelle Yeoh dutifully recite (she voices the eagle bot Airazor).

“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” can’t rise above this internal conflict, resulting in a film that’s both dull and disposable.

Though it of course sets up the opportunity for more interconnected franchise filmmaking, this is a beast that needs to be put down.

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The Soul Investigator Reviews

In this provocative, arty Canadian drama, Chinese-Canadian Yuan loses his job. For some reason, his palm is bleeding and only he can see it. Yuan turns to a plastic surgeon for help, but when that fails he consults a vagabond who refers him to the campfire prophet, the Soul Investigator.


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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Searching For Soul Food’ On Hulu, An Exploration of The Foods With Humble Beginnings That Came To Define A Culture

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Hulu’s Searching for Soul Food is a love letter to soul food all around the world. While we often equate it with the comforting cooking of the American South, chef Alisa Reynolds travels the globe in this eight-episode series, to expand her mind and palate and broaden the definition of what we consider soul food.


Opening Shot: An animated collage appears onscreen featuring old photos of our host, Alisa Reynolds as a younger chef and as a child. On one side of her is a French flag and images of classic French cuisine, and on the other side of her are illustrations of a crayfish, a boombox, and a woman with an Afro. She narrates, “I’m chef Alisa Reynolds: classically trained, soul food raised. At my restaurant in L.A., I apply my classical training to what I know: soul food.”

The Gist: Reynolds begins this series in Mississippi, the heart of the American South and slavery, to begin her story of the origins of soul food. This is a show dedicated to understanding not just the American version of soul food, but what that term means across the globe – in later episodes, Reynolds visits Jamaica, Italy, South Africa, and Peru – but along the way, she connects the dots between soul food’s African roots to other Indigenous cultures and the way customs traveled across the globe, due in part to the slave trade.

At 25 minutes each, the episodes move at a rapid clip, and the show is densely packed with information (and lots of food ogling). Reynolds visits with regionally famous chefs who have made a name for themselves cooking the food of their ancestors: succotash and braised greens and black-eyed peas. But for every dish she delights in, there’s a message in there too, about that particular food’s significance, like how Africans hid things like okra and collard seeds in their hair during the mid-Atlantic crossing to bring the food from their homes to America. Later, Reynolds learns that often the only meat eaten by poor Southerners was whatever scraps they could carry out of their employer or master’s kitchen.

During a visit with bookstore owner Maati Jone Primm, Primm explains, “That’s the genius of being Black. We get oppressed, we get sad, we create the blues. We take garbage and make it into fine cuisine.” The food we’re celebrating has roots in hardship and exploitation, and yet, look at it now.

The show focuses on the contributions of Indigenous people too, who inhabited many of the same areas as slaves, and the cultures cross-pollinated and shared many of the same customs. Reynolds explains, for instance, that while hush puppies have long been considered Southern soul food, they were first introduced into Black culture by Native Americans, who had a long history of cooking with corn first. Reynolds calls out the Webster’s dictionary definition of soul food at one point, saying, “Despite what my friend Webster has to say, soul food isn’t just food eaten by Black people. Duh.” While it’s origins are often associated with slaver, she says, Africans were frying and baking and using “soul food” cooking techniques before they ever arrived in America, which leads us to the rest of the series, which explores the origins and traditions of cultures around the world who also create their versions of soul food.

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Searching For Soul Food has a similar premise to Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu travel series Taste The Nation ; both shows put attention on cultures or regions that are often overlooked or not given the credit they deserve for influencing the culture.

Our Take: Right off the bat, it felt like this show was trying to do too many things all at once. Visits with chefs in Jackson and Natchez, Mississippi were interspersed with animated history lessons and a comedy sketch featuring an actor playing an irate, knife-throwing version of Thomas Jefferson’s personal chef (and slave) James Hemings. (Though the sketch felt tonally out of place amid this otherwise fairly serious travel show, I still appreciated the message that Hemings, a Black man, was the first American chef to be classically-trained in French cooking, and he was responsible for popularizing foods like French Fries and mac and cheese.)

And yet, despite the show’s at times frenetic pace and disjointed segments, I found myself interested and curious in everything about it. Food history across the globe, not just in America, is a snapshot of cultural, agricultural, and political history, and Searching For Soul Food is an easily digestible way for viewers to dip their toe in a topic that can get pretty deep if you really want to dive into it. Reynolds is an affable host who moves the show along and she seems truly proud to be the one to take viewers on this journey of exploration with her.

Parting Shot: A montage of shots featuring all of the guests who appeared on the show and the food that was eaten flashes across the screen, flecked with clips of Reynolds smiling and dancing. If the show is a celebration, the final moments are the photo album that you look at to remember the good times you had.

Most Pilot-y Line: “Soul food: it is both our celebration and our saliva,” Maati Jone Primm, the owner of Marshall’s Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi says during a visit with Reynolds. This is her short and sweet way of explaining how food that was once just thought of as scraps evolved into food that is a symbol of a culture as well as a point of pride.

Our Call: STREAM IT! The tone of the show is all over the map, zigging and zagging between sketch comedy and light-hearted animations to serious conversations about slavery and history, which can be jarring. But the messages that underlie both the heavy and light moments are consistent and serve the same purpose: to explain our history through food. Searching For Soul Food is a travelogue filled with mouth-watering food, but it’s more successful as a historical and cultural guide to that food’s importance.

Liz Kocan is a pop culture writer living in Massachusetts. Her biggest claim to fame is the time she won on the game show Chain Reaction .

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‘elemental’ review: pixar’s timely high-concept bonanza underwhelms.

Director Peter Sohn ('The Good Dinosaur') tells the story of a fire family immigrating to a metropolis dominated by the opposing element of water, and the romance that ensues.

By Jordan Mintzer

Jordan Mintzer


Everyone has their favorite Pixar movie — mine is Coco , with Wall-E and Ratatouille very close seconds — and no matter which title you prefer in the game-changing animation studio’s catalogue, almost every one of them feels unique. (The Cars and Toy Story sequels aside, although even some of those were fresh and original).  

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Which brings us to Elemental . The studio’s 27 th feature, has, well, all the elements that make up a great Pixar movie: A high-concept pitch that could only be rendered via dazzling state-of-the-art computer animation; a serious overarching theme about ethnic strife and racial tolerance; humor for both kids and adults, although this one is more geared toward the 10-and-under set; a plot that hits all the right beats at exactly the right time.

It’s all there — so much so that Elemental may be the first work from Pixar to feel like it was generated entirely by AI. Not just the AI computing all the imagery, but literally an algorithm putting together a perfect Pixar movie. The problem, of course, is that the originality is mostly absent here, as is the thematic risk-taking that drove films like Wall-E (the planet almost dies!) or Inside Out (Bing Bong dies!) or Coco (people die!).

In Elemental , Pixar’s usual ambitious leap into the unknown is more of a safe dip into calm waters — water being one of the four elements driving the story, although only two of them really count here — and much about it seems familiar. This doesn’t mean it won’t be at least a modest summer hit when Disney releases it mid-June, following a premiere in Cannes on the festival’s closing night. But the wow-factor has kind of been lost at this point, and what we’re left with feels like just another Pixar movie.

Arriving by boat in the city’s equivalent of Ellis Island, an immigrant couple, Bernie Lumen (Ronnie Del Carmen) and his wife, Cinder (Shila Omni), have come all the way from their home country of Fireland to give a new life to their baby daughter, Ember (Leah Lewis). Without much in the way of money or connections, and as members of the Fire minority, they end up in the working-class neighborhood of Fire Town, where Bernie opens a grocery store called Fireplace that caters to other Fire people like himself.

If you’ve already had enough of all these wink-wink names and rather facile jokes, there’s lots more to come in a movie that strives to find humor in its parallel urban universe of walking conflagrations, blobs of H2O, floating cloud puffs and what basically look like old tree stumps. (Earth is definitely given short shrift here, with most of its characters coming across as dull as dirt. Or is that just another pun?)

But as Paula Abdul famously predicted, opposites attract, and so Ember and Wade start to grow fond of each other, even if they can’t make any physical contact because, well, you get it. The Pixar story algorithm takes over at that point, with the two facing all sorts of obstacles as they fall in love despite their inherent differences, pushing Ember to hide the relationship from a proud father who prefers her to stay back in Fire Town.

Water has always been a tricky substance for animators, and what Sohn and his team do with it, especially once Ember starts visiting downtown Elemental City with Wade, can be impressive to behold. The wide-ranging color palette includes a gazillion shades of blue, turquoise and green that this partly colorblind critic felt almost assaulted by, and the whole setting looks like Shanghai’s Pudong district dipped into a giant aquarium. Another innovation involves characters whose faces and bodies are filled with constant internal motion, whether swarming with flames or churning with fluids.

That, and a few charmingly funny sequences — especially a visit that Ember and Wade pay to the latter’s overbearing bougie mom (Catherine O’Hara) — cannot, however, compensate for the film’s major flaw, which is that it feels entirely predictable. Maybe we’ve all seen too many Pixar movies by now, and so if Element were the studio’s first-ever release instead of its umpteenth one, it would seem more surprising, more daring.

His story proves more involving than a romance between Ember and Wade that goes exactly where you think it will, underlining the many hardships, whether personal or societal, faced by people of different races trying to stick together. Had Pixar perhaps taken more risks with that plotline, they might have pleased a smaller demographic than such a project requires to be profitable, but they might also have delivered a movie on par with some of their best work. Instead, the elements all fit perfectly into place — so much so that the creative flames are doused, and we’re left without much of an impression.

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Soul Doctor

Soul Doctor (2023)

Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi is a Broadway musical that details the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, with music and lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach and David Schechter, and book and direction by Da... Read all Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi is a Broadway musical that details the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, with music and lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach and David Schechter, and book and direction by Daniel Wise. Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi is a Broadway musical that details the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, with music and lyrics by Shlomo Carlebach and David Schechter, and book and direction by Daniel Wise.

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Movie review: ‘Shooting Stars’ shoots, scores as winning tale of young LeBron James

movie reviews soul

Marquis “Mookie” Cook as LeBron James in “Shooting Stars,” directed by Chris Robinson.

Universal Pictures | TNS

Based on the 2009 book by Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger (“Friday Night Lights”) and nicely directed by Chris Robinson (“Woke”), “Shooting Stars” is the 1990s-set coming-of-age story of James and his “Fab Four” crew of fellow basketball enthusiasts with whom he played and grew up in Akron.

When we meet James (Marquis “Mookie” Cook, making his debut) and his closest friends and surrogate brothers Lil Dru (Caleb McLaughlin, “Stranger Things”), Willy McGee (Avery S. Willis Jr, “Swagger”) and Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage, “Cobra Kai”), they are together in the basement of Lil Dru’s house, which he shares with his father Dru Joyce (an excellent Wood Harris), a sometime basketball coach and mother Carolyn (Diane Howard). LeBron lives with his single mother Gloria James (Natalie Paul), who is an enormous influence on him and who will work as many shifts as possible to keep a roof over their heads. When the local public school coach tries to separate the four by making the short-of-stature Lil Dru play for the junior varsity team, they decide to switch schools and play for the “Fighting Irish” of the local Catholic school, St. Vincent-St. Mary. At St. Vincent-St. Mary, where African Americans are few, the young men meet Coach Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney), a failed college coach, who recognizes their tremendous potential and LeBron’s greatness.

“Shooting Stars,” which was adapted by Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor (“Creed II”) with James as an executive producer, is not winning any awards for originality. A “Nutty Professor” poster is on the wall of the basement where the players hang out. Someone makes a Carlton of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” joke. When they aren’t outside playing basketball, the boys are inside playing basketball video games. But it is amusing to see the St. Vincent-St. Mary “Fighting Irish” mascot, a leprechaun on the court, with our protagonists, or to hear bagpipes and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” used to accentuate the accomplishments of the “Fab Four.”

Beginning with their freshman year, the “Fab Four” lead St. Vincent-St. Mary to championships. Soon, Sports Illustrated is printing features about “high-school phenom” James. He meets classmate Savannah (Katlin Nichol). He takes her to the local Outback, where the car he borrowed won’t start afterward. The moral of “Shooting Stars” is that sometimes high school friendships turn into lifelong sources of happiness, camaraderie and solace. St. Vincent becomes the number one high school basketball team in the country. After a scandal involving a vintage jersey given to LeBron by a fan, James is suspended for a few games. Will his friends step up to win without him?

James will be tempted to sample the excesses of superstardom. We see a young man’s bed surrounded by boxes of shoes. His bedroom walls plastered with posters. As his best friends get better as players, Willy sadly observes that he has “stayed the same.” Will Lil Dru ever lose the chip on his shoulder?

As the hotheaded “fifth” member of the Fab Four, newcomer Sterling “Scoot” Henderson is impressive. Universal is not giving “Shooting Stars” a theatrical run. While the film is no blockbuster, this is a mistake. LeBron James is a genuine, real-life superhero, and Cook is very sympathetic in the role. Paul is just as good as his mother and “rock.” The young actors have charisma, screen presence and chemistry. For crying out loud, they even got game. What more do you want, bagpipes?


Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong language, some suggestive references and teen drinking)

Running time: 1:56

How to watch: Peacock

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