'Soul' Review: A Jazzy, Joyful Celebration Of Life : Pop Culture Happy Hour In Disney and Pixar's Soul, a jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx falls down a manhole and finds himself teetering between life and the afterlife. He winds up on a New York adventure with a wandering soul, voiced by Tina Fey, who needs help getting ready to be reborn on Earth.

'Soul' Is A Jazzy, Joyful Celebration Of Life

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Pixar's latest heartfelt animated tale is "Soul." It's the story of a jazz musician who falls down a manhole and winds up learning a lot about what the afterlife and the not-quite afterlife are like. He winds up on a New York adventure with a wandering soul who needs help getting ready to be reborn on Earth.


The voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad and Questlove help animate the characters, some of whom are human and some of whom aren't exactly. It's a story about music, passion and, of course, looking where you're going. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. We're talking about "Soul" on today's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, so stick around.


HOLMES: Welcome back. You just met NPR's Stephen Thompson. Also with us is our own Aisha Harris. Aisha, hello.


HOLMES: And of course, also also with us is our own Glen Weldon. Hello, Glen.


HOLMES: So "Soul" is one of only a few Pixar movies about regular human beings and even fewer that are about adults. Jamie Foxx voices the character of Joe, a jazz pianist whose fall down a manhole results in his getting sort of stuck between life and afterlife. He meets a little soul called 22. She's been stuck there for a long time, not quite able to earn her pass to be reborn as a new person. Angela Bassett, Questlove and Phylicia Rashad all voice characters who are part of Joe's life on earth, while Graham Norton and a bunch of other people show up in this nebulous in-between existence.

The movie was directed by Pete Docter, who's also one of the writers. Docter has made a lot of the warmest of the Pixar movies like "Up" and "Inside Out." Stephen, you are a big fan of the sweeter, more heartfelt and weepy Pixar movies. What did you think?

THOMPSON: I loved it. I really, really, really loved it. Pete Docter clearly is the Pixar animator on whose frequency I most happily vibrate. This, to me, is very much in the spirit of "Inside Out," where it is not only heartfelt, it is not only tugging very, very strongly at heartstrings, but it's doing so in ways that, in terms of animation, are, I think, incredibly imaginative. There are kind of two palettes at work in this movie. There is the real-life palette, which is some of the most vividly rendered real-life animation I've ever seen. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at. And then there is the animation that is set kind of on this other plane of existence, kind of the great beyond, the great before, whatever they call it, which is its own set of just very kind of jarringly beautifully animated pieces.

At the same time, thematically, you know how each Pixar movie is kind of about a different idea, right? Like the idea of death, the idea of aging, the idea of rats cooking...


THOMPSON: ..."Soul" is - on one hand, the watchword is inspiration. But on another, it's purpose. And so it's kind of tugging at a lot of deeper meanings of kind of what drive us and inspire us as human beings in the world. And I just found it gorgeous to look at, deeply heartfelt, fun. It made me miss live music. It hit a lot of my sweet spots just as somebody who loves creative connection. I absolutely adored this movie.

HOLMES: That is awesome. Aisha, what did you think?

HARRIS: There were so many things that I really appreciated and loved about this movie. Like Stephen, I really appreciated the odes to the famous jazz legends. There's a lot of photo renderings of famous jazz musicians like Nina Simone and Duke Ellington, and it's really cool to see them rendered in a Pixar-y (ph) way. I also loved just the detail to the Dorothea Williams character. And her hair - her afro looked amazing and fabulous. And it was cool to see her, like, playing the saxophone. And all those little details are really fantastic.

I will say I was a little bit more lukewarm on this overall, though, because I feel like Pixar is always going to be, I think, a tier above most at least American-made animated films. Just that's the standard that they are at. And because I have such high standards about what a Pixar movie can be, I feel like the cracks are starting to show in sort of their formula and the way in which they use these things. Even though I went into it knowing very little about it, because that's the way I like to go into most - especially Pixar films, I felt like I could tell where it was going pretty quickly. And it felt very similar in many ways to "Inside Out" and to "Coco" in ways that didn't feel as fresh and didn't hit me as hard as, you know, those movies did because they felt like more of a surprise.

And without spoiling it too much, there's also this weird thing that happens. And there are some, you know, some critiques from people who had not seen the movie at all starting as early as last year about the fact that this is a film with the first Black Pixar protagonist. And for the majority of it, people thought that he was going to be a blue blob and it was in the same vein as, like, "The Princess And The Frog," where she's a frog for most of the movie and we don't actually see a Black human.


HARRIS: It's more complicated in that, I will say. But the way in which they play with it left me a little uncomfortable. And I wish I could talk about it, but I feel like it's a little too spoiler-y (ph). But it was just a little weird and jarring to me. And I wanted to love this more than I did. And unfortunately, I did not love it.


How about you, Glen?

WELDON: Well, I liked everything about this. The design, as Stephen mentioned, both of the great before in the great beyond; the cubist design of the Jerries, who are kind of the staffers of the spiritual world; also the design of New York, that quality of light. It made New York look beautiful, but also authentically, recognizably grubby at the same time. Really liked these vocal performances - you know, when we talked about "The Emperor's New Groove," we talked about how when you cast to your actors, they don't have to be effortful. They can just be kind of themselves. And that's one of the things that Pixar really does best, is match the voice to the animation. They don't get their actors to push too hard. I loved Rachel House's Terry, who was a standout performance in the film for me. Terry is the accountant of the afterlife. You got Phylicia Rashad just radiating Phylicia Rashad-idity (ph). And Alice Braga, that voice - quiet coyote, quiet coyote - I could...


WELDON: I just want her to reassure me that everything is going to be OK. They do a really good job of matching the characters to the actors - real congruence between actor and role. I would say Graham Norton doesn't have that same - in this film, the same sort of connectivity to his role for whatever reasons. But there's some great physical comedy, which sounds weird to say about an animated film, but it's very true. The relationship between Foxx and Fey kind of reminded me very much, very much indeed of the relationship between John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman in "Wreck-It Ralph."

I am not convinced that this vision of the afterlife is going to seem as timeless as, for example, "Coco's" does because they're going for a very specific thing here. They're riffing specifically on our culture of seminars and slide decks and TED Talks. And that is going to place this film very squarely in this current cultural moment in the decades to come.

And look, it - I say this about - I think I say this about every Disney-Pixar film, but they're going to load you down with lots of lore that you have to become instantly conversant in to follow the plot. In this one, it's pavilions and seminars and mentors and halls and sparks and earth passes and thin spots and zones and lost souls and untethered souls. And then they're going to, about two-thirds of the way through of the film, needlessly, in my opinion, complicate that lore so what you were told in the first place isn't necessarily true. And I always come away from these films, and as I did with this one, which is just, like, simplify, man.


WELDON: You know, just do a Coco Chanel. Look in the mirror. Remove one narrative accessory before you head out of the house. There's just a little too much in here, but I really did enjoy it.


You know, I enjoyed it. I think it's a lovely - it sounds like such faint praise, but I think particularly if you haven't seen a lot of other Pixar movies, I think it's a perfectly fine demonstration of some of what they do. I agree with the observation that the cubist design of the helpers is very cool and interesting. I will say, I didn't actually think the great before, this in-between plane - I didn't actually think the blue was that interesting looking. I didn't think it was anywhere near as inventively drawn and visually conceived as some of the other Pixar worlds.

I did love their New York. I thought their New York was wonderful. I think it has a wit to it in kind of how New York feels. They have a feel for that everybody-crammed-onto-the-sidewalk feeling. They go into a club, and they go down the stairs. And it has this very like, yes, that is how these little tucked away places in New York typically are. I loved that about it. I think it was very hard for me to stop comparing this to "Inside Out" - right? - which, I think, is the most obvious cousin of it because they're both kind of about a different world. And "Coco" is, too, but they're both about kind of a landscape that represents something that really is inside you or of you or something like that.

And I didn't think it had the specificity of the "Inside Out" world. I didn't think it had the detail of the "Inside Out" world. I felt, like Glen, like there was somehow both too much lore and not enough sense, if that makes sense. It took me a long time to feel like I understood what the basics of this world were. And it has, to me, some things that don't really hold up to scrutiny, which sounds like such an unfair observation about a Pixar movie. But the truth of the matter is, that's where you get stakes. Right?

And so when you get to the end of this film, it feels a little to me like they've kind of just brought everything together. They've just kind of swept everything together and wrapped it up and kind of handed it to you, but not brought it together in a way that felt particularly meaningful to me. I will say I very much enjoyed listening to the music, a lot of which is Jon Batiste. I very much enjoyed, as Stephen and Aisha talked about, the kind of love of music and jazz. I'm a little concerned about the portrayal of teaching as a thing to do with your life. But I did very much appreciate it. And I - I didn't - it's like - we were talking about this before. And I was saying, like, it's not bad. It's just not my favorite Pixar. That's all.

THOMPSON: I don't necessarily think this movie takes a dim view of teaching. I think one of the things that is kind of revealed - this isn't giving anything away. One of the things that is kind of revealed over the course of this movie is that he deeply appreciates and loves and is very gifted at passing along the things that he loves and knows and cares about. I'm very glad, Linda, that you mentioned the music. Not only do you have those gorgeous Jon Batiste piano performances...


THOMPSON: ...But you have the score in the other realms, which is crafted by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross at their least menacing.


THOMPSON: I just think - man, I just think there is so much wit and care and thought put into so many components of this film. I feel like some of the criticisms that I'm kind of hearing come up again and again are, like, it's not as good as "Inside Out." Well, "Inside Out" is one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years. And I think the fact that this is still, to me, a glorious viewing experience, it doesn't diminish it that it's, like, a cut below one of my favorite movies. It's still a great movie, and it's still different. It has some of the visual and thematic hallmarks of "Inside Out," but it's telling a very different story. I just really encourage people to check out this movie 'cause I loved it.

HARRIS: Well, I definitely don't want to tell people not to check it out. I think it's - I very much enjoyed it. And I will say that I did start crying, like Pixar usually makes me do towards the end, especially - there is one shot of Joe, Jamie Foxx's character, and a flashback of his father - memory of his father, 'cause, of course, it's a Disney-Pixar movie, so at least one parent is dead.


WELDON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And it just, like - it got me. I shed a tear. And on this - obviously, we can't retroactively say this, but I do feel as though had this movie come out before "Inside Out," I still would feel to some extent that, like, it doesn't necessarily land all of its ideas and the emotions in the same way. And it does feel - I feel like, yes, there's the "Inside Out" and "Coco" comparisons. But I think, also, just coming off of "The Good Place," which we've, you know, discussed as well on this show, like, that handles the afterlife and all of these, like, existential questions so well. And here, it just doesn't coalesce to me in the same way.

WELDON: Right. And even if the story doesn't land with you, I mean, this - the skill in this animation is worth the price of a ticket. I hate saying it, but there you go. What Pixar and Disney have understood is that something that filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis should understand, which is that you don't need to cross the uncanny valley. Stay on this side of the uncanny valley. And create caricatures, but animate the hell out of them. And your brain will just make you forget that you're watching an animated film in passages. And that's...

HOLMES: You will believe.

WELDON: You will believe a man can play to jazz.


HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think Stephen's exactly right that it doesn't speak poorly of a movie that it's not as good as "Inside Out" necessarily. Right? But I was also thinking while I was watching this, it's hard to unite, for me, the Pixar aesthetic with an adult main character rather than an animal or a beastie or child, which I think is part of why, as Aisha mentioned, you do have little blobs for part of it. But I don't think their aesthetic and their kind of playfulness works, and I don't think their sense of physical comedy works quite as well for me with an adult main character. It's not as easy to make that whimsy work with an adult character. And maybe that's just the limitation of my thinking. And again, there's not a reason in the world not to check it out. I think kids will enjoy it. I think the little soul blob, the Tina Fey soul blob, is very cute. And despite the misgivings that Aisha talked about that I think are partly about that, I enjoyed that part. I thought was funny. It's fine.

THOMPSON: It's better than fine.

HOLMES: It's fine.

HARRIS: Ringing endorsement.

THOMPSON: It's better than fine.


HOLMES: And Stephen thinks "Soul" is better than fine.

Well, we want to know what you think about "Soul." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you all for being here, even Stephen.


THOMPSON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening. We will see you all tomorrow.


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