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Occupying some similar thematic terrain to Coco, Pixar’s 2017 masterpiece, Soul uses an afterlife-bound journey with a tight deadline to explore what it is that makes us human, in the context of a life devoted to music. When Joe, a music teacher and passionate jazz pianist, dies in a classic open manhole cover accident, his soul, now separated from his body but desperate to live, escapes an A Matter of Life and Death-inspired travelator to Heaven and ends up in the Great Before, a meadow populated with unborn souls preparing for their upcoming lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he is assigned 22, a cynical, sarcastic soul with no desire to live on Earth, and when he tries to return to his body, she accidentally comes with.
As well as to Coco, Mike finds Soul comparable to another of Pixar’s films: Soul handles philosophical concepts the way Inside Out did psychological ones, rendering them visually imaginative and narratively physical. ‘The zone’, where people describe themselves when feeling that transcendent state of flow when an activity consumes them, is in the Great Before a real place that Joe and 22 visit; the unborn souls develop personality traits signified by Boy Scout-style badges. The storytelling is economical and concise, characters’ priorities and attitudes smoothly and legibly changing as their goals and relationships shift. It’s a beautifully told story.
José considers the social and economic setting of Joe’s life, the music he loves and the barber he visits, about whose life he learns – the film humanely understands people and hardship without wallowing in despair, finding space for joy. We wonder how well it will play to kids, thrilled that Pixar refuses to speak down to its audience, if a little unsure about how much will translate to the younger members of its target audience. Predictably, Mike finished the film in tears, despite an ending he found to be overly mechanical and inorganic.
Soul is a beautiful, wonderful film. To José, it’s a masterpiece. To Mike, possibly not, but only because Coco exists. See it.
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.