This new animation comes from the creators of Inside Out (2015), and is about a music teacher and aspiring jazz pianist, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who dies by falling into New York City’s manhole. He begins his journey in the world “beyond” (“The Great Before”) and his reluctant companion becomes a yet-unborn soul called “22”. As it turns out, the two have much to teach each other about life, death and human destiny. Soul is best when it is rooted in simplicity, heart-warmness and quiet moments. It certainly loses some of its coherence and has many undercooked ideas, as well as mixed messages, when it tries to present the world of “The Great Before”. Nevertheless, the overall effect is that of one lovely animation, with one lovable character at its centre, which portrays New York City and the jazz scene beautifully. Soul has many redeeming elements, and those messages in the story that finally do get through effectively to the audience make it a wonderful cinematic experience overall.
In this story, Joe Gardner is a music teacher who tries to instil in his pupils the passion for music. He has just got promoted to the position of a full-time teacher and even has a chance to perform on a piano with the jazz legend Dorothea Williams. He thinks he is on his way to success when he dies by falling into a manhole. When he reaches “The Great Before”, a place where dead people’s souls go and where new souls await their birth on Earth, he is neither fully dead yet nor is he fully alive, but in some kind of a “in-between” state. That is when he is assigned to mentor a new soul, named 22, who, now for a long time, cannot find its potential or passion in order to be born (finding a passion or talent for something seems to be a pre-requisite for any soul to be born). Gardner then tries to help 22, while thinking it will also help him to re-join his own body.
In contrast to the coherence and clear purpose of animation Inside Out, Soul is more random with certain elements under-thought, while others seem to be over-thought. The creators of Soul seem to have gone for everything at the same time – passion for music, unrealised profession ambition, questions of life and depth, mysteries of dying, and other elements which will be considered spoilers if named here. The animation definitely reminds of Coco (2017). As in that animation, Soul has both the presentation of the world of the dead, and the focus on the unrealised ambition to become a professional musician. If Miguel in Coco wants to make music his career, but his parents forbid it and want him to have a more stable employment in the family shoe business, Gardner in Soul wants to be a professional jazz pianist, but his mother wants him to have a more stable employment. There may even be an attempt in Soul to build something around the success of film La La Land (2016) since, as in that movie, we also have here one struggling jazz pianist who is at a point of losing his dream of realising himself professionally. That divide between artistic aspirations and fulfilment, and the world of work and actually earning money, is familiar to any artist. The problem with Soul, of course, is that its messages and main story threads are far less clear than those in either Inside Out, Coco or in La La Land (for that matter).
Soul is probably best when it portrays New York City, rather than “The Great Before”. In presenting the world after death, the animators seem to have got a bit lost. Taking inspiration from the mythical Elysian Fields with its cypress trees, what they also added were two-dimensional characters and a complicated system of governance, which undoubtedly confused even them. There are employees working in this world of “the dead” and “the unborn”, including “a person” whose task is to count each soul as it enters and leaves, but the workings of the system seem overly complicating and confusing. Each unborn soul must first choose its passion or talent before joining the world of the living, but even here the story slightly contradicts itself and changes its message near the end.
Despite its evident faults, Soul has many redeeming qualities. Its “quiet” moments are probably the best. Some of its messages are inspiring and touching, such as a lesson of looking at your life from the point of view of someone else and realising how lucky you are – that others would enjoy what you have (and some would even give an arm and a leg for it!) and so should you. To be happy, you do not need to be a celebrity or even realise your professional ambitions – you just need to be you, healthy, cherishing small things in life, including your family. That is enough, and that is the message. Going further, one may say that a person who neither visibly contributes to society nor chases big ambitions and dreams is not necessarily bad, stupid or lazy – they are probably making their own sacrifices in their small and hidden way, making gifts in their own unique way, for example, by helping older members of their family, which is also sometimes a form of heroism.
Soul is sometimes too hectic, has some random and derivative ideas, and probably tries to be too clever, which means it would have benefited from more simplicity and coherence. However, despite all that, it is very creative and beautifully-presented with a fascinating concept at its core. Its final message of cherishing simple pleasures in life and not losing the present moment make it a wonderful celebration of life as that which is lived in a present moment surrounded by all the simple joys, as opposed to that which is filled with societal pressures to succeed in unreachable and, what may be even worse, ever-changing goals and ambitions. 8/10