By John Mulderig | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — As the director of such films as “Up” (2009) and 2015’s “Inside Out,” Pete Docter has taken cartoons to the heights of artistry, proving that an animated feature can be touching, emotionally rich and memorable.
And that’s to say nothing of his involvement in the four “Toy Story” movies.
So it’s disappointing to find that his latest project, “Soul” (Disney), a blend of drama and comedy, while often funny, fails to make a similar impact. Although mostly free of objectionable material, moreover, the picture’s treatment of subjects of grave significance makes it potentially confusing for impressionable viewers.
In part, that’s a result of the ambitious goal Docter and his co-writers, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers (also Docter’s co-director), have established for themselves. Much of “Soul,” it turns out, is set in a supernatural realm made up of both a Great Beyond and a Great Before.
Visiting each in turn, albeit involuntarily, is our earthly protagonist, Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx).
A middle school music teacher who yearns to be a jazz pianist, Joe gets his big break when he’s invited to join the highly regarded quartet led by saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voice of Angela Bassett). Just before his first performance with them, however, an accident leaves Joe’s body in a coma and sends his spirit into the afterlife.
Unwilling to resign his corporeal existence at such a promising moment, Joe tries to escape going to heaven but winds up instead in the domain where the personalities of future babies are formed. There, he’s assigned to mentor a soul called 22 (voice of Tina Fey) a patience-exhausting pupil who has stubbornly refused to be born for centuries.
The duo’s relationship leads to new insights for each. And “Soul” ultimately sends the positive messages that life is well worth living and that its meaning transcends an individual’s professional accomplishments.
Although it’s understandable that the filmmakers feel bound to portray the spiritual arena in a nondenominal way in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities, the result feels sterile. In place of angels, for instance, we get cubist-style figures who identify themselves as — more or less — the sum of all the laws of physics.
To the extent that any belief system is represented, the unfortunate choice falls on the New Age movement. Thus, during a sojourn in yet another nonphysical region, the Astral Plane, Joe receives guidance from a middle-aged hippie called Moonwind (voice of Graham Norton) and from the various shamans by whom he’s surrounded.
The idea that human souls exist before conception was condemned as heretical by the Second Council of Constantinople in the sixth century. So, while grown-ups and well-catechized older teens can be counted on to recognize the presence of this notion in “Soul” as no more than a fictional device and a means of introducing the audience to cute talking babies, kids likely cannot.
If youngsters are anxious to watch the movie, parents could make it the springboard for a family discussion about life after death and related matters. But they should be aware going in that there’s a lot on screen that needs to be sorted through with discernment and care.
The film contains mature themes, a couple of mild oaths and a single crass term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.