Movie Review | Soul (2020)

A poster for the Disney Pixar series.

Let me just come out and say it before we get into the review. I might have a thing against movies dealing with death as a theme, most especially, animated works. I am just never impressed. No matter how much I enjoy the story and graphics, I am barely touched. It is just another “cool story” to me. I see people talking about fighting tears and questioning their entire life, but not me. By the way, I am talking about just two Disney Pixar movies: Coco (2017) and Soul (2020). I guess I can just always tell that everything will be fine at the end of the day, and watching such movies is entirely about getting immersed in their worlds, while picking out a few lessons at the same time.
Let’s get into Soul. This is our first animated feature film review. The first on this blog was the Oscar winning short film, Hair Love.

Joe on the piano at the jazz club. Via Disney.

On the day his lifelong dream comes true, a middle-aged music teacher, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), experiences an accident which leads (or sucks) him to an outer world, where he spends time in ‘The Great Before’ with a soul, named 22 (voiced by Tiny Fey). Their adventure also brings them to earth. On earth, Joe Gardner hopes to redeem himself so he can return in his normal human form, while 22 remains an unconcerned soul who has merely been forced to earth against her wishes. This prompts both characters to help each other out while a mysterious foe lurks not too far behind. The events that take place make him question his actual love for life and chosen dreams. 
So, we could say, “life-changing event on the day he got the bag.”

Joe at his teaching job. Via Disney.

The messages to be learnt are clear; right from the first scene of this family movie as Gardner struggles to control his music class filled with disinterested students who have to play classical musical instruments. The produced sounds don’t harmonize, the young students are clearly unconcerned, doing funny things with their instruments and hands, and he is basically just winding down time till his teaching hours come to an end. 

This first scene could serve as a summary of his whole life. The unharmonious music, the lacklustre kids and his own boring teaching methods. He could be doing better as a musician, he constantly thinks. But things have unfortunately not gone to plan, which forces him to settle for the teaching job, one his mum believes would provide him with the stability that he needs, compared to the life of being a band member with irregular gigs. An unstable life leads to no insurance and benefits, lack of such benefits is a red sign in America, and all of these are potholes his mum would like to avoid because the life he wishes is a familiar one that she had to live with for a long time. 

This familiar life was the period she spent with his father before his death. It is always a tough thing when the kid wants the same thing his papa strived for, which serves as an almost daily (or even hourly) mantra for the offspring— to make his dad proud by making music in a band.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) in the great before. Via Disney.

As an animated film, multiple forms of animation designs are employed. One does not have to be an expert to notice this. Even if you are unable to name specific styles and formats, you can just feel it, which is the most important thing as an audience member. You are there to be immersed, not to take an impromptu test. Each aspect of animation is used at the right time to portray the thoughts of the filmmakers. This ranges from usage of shape, colours, lines and texture. On earth, objects feel glossy and solid. In these strange new worlds (The Great Before and After Life), which are stages of pre-life and post-death, you feel multiple things such as emptiness, volatility and lack of grasp—which translates to “anything could be lost at any time, if…”, a.k.a uncertainty.

The soul counselors keeping track of the soul count. Via Disney.

This outer ethereal world where Joe Gardner finds himself leads the film into the fantasy genre. Joe is fearful that his life has come to an end because of his newly achieved goal on earth. This shouldn’t be happening on such a day. He has his debut band performance to prepare for. No, no, how does he even get out of here? We should feel worried. Alas , nothing is really at stake. It doesn’t genuinely feel like it. It is mostly about passing the time and watching how it all gets resolved in these beautifully crafted worlds.

22 (Tina Fey) and Joe (Jamie Foxx) in Soul. Via Disney.

The main beauty lies in the animation style that the director used to tell the familiar story of an upbeat character inspiring a low-spirited figure into being hungry for life. Like, life might actually be great. Just give it a try. Yay! So original. However, these familiar stories have often featured white leads. Soul is Pixar’s first film featuring a black character as a central figure, which promotes inclusion. There are quite a number of people of colour on screen, most especially African Americans and Latinos who make up this part of the city.

Joe Gardner on the street of New York. Via Disney.

New York as a setting provided the animators with great energy, being a location that boasts vibrant colours and background activities. Last time I saw New York in an animation was in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) which remains visually stunning on every rewatch. 


Despite being a comedy, the movie sheds crucial light on career, goals, calling, ‘Beruf,’ purpose or whatever you know “figuring out your shit” as. It makes us question how our calling is decided before we are born, or some might argue that it happens after we pick up some life interests. What would truly keep you going for life and how do you find it? After one accomplishment in your field, what motivates you to keep going? Are Liverpool FC players really unmotivated after one Champions League trophy and an English Premier League title marked with asterisk?

Joe and Joe? Via Disney.

This would’ve been a suitable movie for me growing up. Personally, I still have fears of finding what will truly keep me excited till death. I’m sure it’s the same for some others out there. The movie asks repeatedly, “is there truly a calling?”

In this story, both characters of contrasting natures are able to inspire each other before the end of the movie. Even from a slug, there are life lessons to pick, as well as from Mark Wahlberg who wakes up at 2:30 am daily. A slug’s calling might not require him to live a fast life. Mark Wahlberg’s life requires that he wakes up for a 3 am workout. Interchanging or mixing up their traits (and respective goals) might just knock one of them off their path. Just find what is truly for you and be set. However, the difficult part is the self-discovery. 
As Joe sobbed at some point in the movie saying, “I’m just afraid that if i died today my life would have amounted to nothing.”

*cues soulful jazz as you digest the quote*

Enjoy as you reflect on the quote.
Jazz club scene. Via Disney.

The musical feature by Jon Batiste (jazz), and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (new-age), most especially Batiste’s Jazz score, has the potential to spark dreams in kids today. As Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit (2020) caused an uptick in chess sales in 2020, the soulful jazz music might inspire wishful thinking and love for classical instruments in the younger generation. At the same time, there are also plot holes for them to munch on, which would await them when they rewatch as adults.

Rating: 7.9/10

Side Musings

  • Weird that even on subways or in public spaces,  the number of whites are minimal. Even though it’s a story focusing on the African American jazz scene, the most populous race in America shouldn’t be left out. It should go both ways.
  • Soul deepened my newly found love for jazz after my first close encounter while watching The Eddy (Netflix) in 2020. But not deep enough to pick up an instrument. Let’s not go too far.
  • Strangest thing happened towards the end of the credits when upbeat music began to play. Like wtf. It didn’t even fit the tone of the completed film. It was like outta nowhere. I understand that it is intended for kids, but would kids actually get to that point of movie watching?
    A calm jazz-inspired score would have sufficed.
  • I’m glad a commonly used trope of animal services chasing down a stray animal on the streets of New York wasn’t utilised in this film. No, these folks don’t really work that hard, I promise you. 
  • Yikes! And I forgot to jot the plot holes I registered during my Christmas watch. But kids, be alert! Destiny awaits you as you rewatch.

Soul premiered on Disney+ in December 2020. According to Nielsen’s viewership stats, viewers spent nearly 1.7 billion minutes watching Soul on Disney Plus in the US in its first weekend. 
It is currently showing in Nigerian cinemas and still available digitally on Disney+.

Bis Bald!


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