Conceived in 2016 before the 2020 pandemic, Soul was a film in its four-year development that was completed remotely by Pixar Animation Studios and released on Disney+ on December 25th, 2020 to rave reviews and record viewing numbers. Soul is Pixar’s first film to feature an African-American protagonist, and it was co-written and directed by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the sensational One Night in Miami on Amazon Prime.
Genre: Out of the Bottle (Body Switch)
Story and Screenplay by: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Directed by: Pete Docter
Co-Directed by: Kemp Powers
Cousins: Freaky Friday, Big, Being John Malkovich, Howl’s Moving Castle, Source Code, The Tenant, Enemy, A Scanner Darkly, Switch, All of Me, The Shaggy Dog, Dream a Little Dream, The Hot Chick
Opening Image: Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) futilely attempts to teach a middle school band class. A cacophony of chaos. When a stand-out student on a trombone, Connie (Cora Champommier), shows potential, she “gets lost” in her jazz solo. Joe demonstrates on the piano to his students. He recollects when his dad took him to a jazz club when he was young. As a boy, he was inspired by the jazz artists “who got lost” on stage and spoke through music. Joe wishes to be a jazz legend who can do that, too. He gets offered a full-time position as the band teacher—job security and benefits. For a struggling person, this would be a boon, but to Joe, it’s a stasis = death minute. He can’t be stuck here forever.
Set-Up: Joe’s mom, Libba Gardner (Phylicia Rashad), has a successful tailoring and alterations shop. She urges him to accept the job and, not wanting to disappoint her, he agrees. He gets a call from a former student, Curley (Questlove), who tells him he’s a drummer for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Joe says he’d “die a happy man” if he could jam with her. Curley, with oddly self-prophesizing words, tells him, “This could be your lucky day.”
At the Half Note jazz club, Joe meets the legendary Dorothea (Angela Bassett). She’s condescending and dismissive. Joe jumps on the baby grand and jams with the group. He’s good, feeling the music, getting lost in it, going into “the zone,” which we’ll learn about later.
Joe gets the job! His life can finally begin!
Catalyst: On the phone, Joe, too distracted and ecstatic to notice, nearly collides with mortality several times—a dropped ton of bricks, a zooming city bus, and scattered banana peels, until he falls into an open sewer hole and dies.
Debate: Joe wakes up in the Great Beyond. He’s now only a Casper the Ghost-looking soul. He joins three others who have accepted their fate. But Joe can’t die—he has a gig! His life is just getting started. He runs the opposite way on the crowded escalator ascending to the heavens.
Joe breaks through a cosmic membrane, falls through several dimensions, and wakes up in a dreamlike world. He meets Jerry, who’s in the Great Before, a kind of purgatory.
A Great Beyond accountant, Terry, notices that “the count’s off.” One soul—Joe—is missing. Terry, the primary antagonist of the story, keeps meticulous records and will try to get his accounting straight by making sure Joe crosses over as he’s supposed to do.
Joe attempts to return to Earth to get his life back, but he keeps getting brought back to the Great Before. The only way he can avoid going to the Great Beyond is becoming a mentor of souls who are missing their “spark” to become complete personalities. Each unborn soul has a badge which grants an Earth Pass once it’s filled out completely with personality traits. Joe, posing as a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, finds a troubled one, 22 (Tina Fey), who’s gone through many mentors.
Theme Stated: Joe never really lived life. Focusing solely on one passion—jazz music, he missed the bigger picture. Through 22, he will learn the lesson that Life is a gift and it’s the small moments that matter most.
Break into Two: Joe gets 22 to agree to work with him. They go to the Hall of Everything, a place where new souls congregate and learn their spark that will lead their Earth life. Unfortunately, 22 can’t find anything she/he likes. Life is scary and hurts. 22 feels not good enough to try to go to Earth. The dramatic irony: Joe is a soul who doesn’t want to die who’s stuck with a soul that doesn’t want to live.
B Story: Joe and 22 venture to the Zone, where they meet Moonwind, who captains a Spanish galleon of “mystics without souls.” Moonwind and his troupe decide to help Joe, who’s been in a coma since his fall, return. They help many “lost souls” who need to find their “zone.” Without this “helper,” Joe couldn’t complete his celestial journey of discovery and redemption. Also, 22 is a B Story “mentor” character, who helps Joe find his purpose… and vice versa.
Fun and Games: Joe and 22 return to Earth. This is the Out of the Bottle promise of the premise that we signed up for: seeing a Freaky Friday-like body switch. Joe returns, but in the form of a therapy cat who was near his comatose body, and 22 enters Joe’s inert form. Neither are happy—22 hates being in a body and, obviously, Joe doesn’t want to be a cat. They escape the hospital to find Moonwind to “fix it.” As Joe, 22 discovers things that make Earth great: pizza and jazz.
Midpoint: It’s a false victory that they find Moonwind, who’s a henpecked hippie sign twirler on a NYC corner. He tells them he’ll have to shift their bodies around. Meet him at the Half Note at 6:30. Now, the stakes are rising and the timeclock is ticking!
Bad Guys Close In: The Great Beyond accountant, Terry, discovers the missing Joe. He comes to Earth after him—raising the stakes and the time pressure even more. Dorothea runs into Joe and 22 on the street, and thinks he’s weird. Joe learns from Curley’s call that he’s going to be replaced. Oh no! As Joe, 22 accidentally mentors both Connie—to stay with the band when she gets lost in the “zone” of her trombone solo—and Dez (Donnell Rawlings), who wanted to be a veterinarian instead of a barber.
22 (as Joe) rips his pants and has to go see his mom. It’s bad. However, he talks to his mom and they finally have an understanding. Recognizing his passion, instead of repairing his suit, his mom tailors one of his dad’s old blue wool suits. Looking sharp, Joe’s becoming closer to who he’s supposed to be. While waiting, 22 starts to fall in love with Earth, finding magic in the simplest things that we take for granted… like lollipops, riding the subway, and falling autumn leaves and whirly birds.
All Is Lost: Moonwind shows up. It’s time to change back bodies. However, 22, in Joe’s body, needs to find his/her purpose. He/she runs away. Joe the cat chases. Then they’re discovered by the Great Beyond’s Terry. It’s the whiff of death as 22 is removed from Joe’s body and Joe is removed from the cat. Joe Gardner is further from his goal than ever before—and worse off than he was at the beginning of the movie. Joe and 22 return to the Great Before.
Dark Night of the Soul: 22 has finally found his/her spark and has an Earth Pass—the badge now filled in with all the personality traits. It’s his/her turn to return to Earth to find a new form. Is it over for Joe? Is this the end? Joe’s resentful as 22 hated everything until he/she got to experience life through Joe by “walking a mile in his shoes.” He/she is about to use the Earth Pass but—hurt by Joe’s resentment—throws it at him and disappears into the crowd of unborn souls.
Break into Three: Joe takes 22’s discarded Earth Pass and returns to his body, gets to the Half Note club, and convinces Dorothea Williams that he’s her man—his spark is music! His “life is about to start.” 22 feels she/he doesn’t have a purpose, as A and B Stories cross.
Gathering of the Team/Executing the Plan: With the three other members of the quartet, Joe Gardner kills it in the club. He gets the dream job he’s always wanted. His mom is even impressed.
High Tower Surprise: It’s a hollow victory for Joe—it wasn’t as special as he thought it would be. He returns home. Disillusioned.
Dig Deep Down: Taking all of the items from the journey—the metro pass, lollipop, part of a bagel, the whirly bird—and thinking about all of his experiences thanks to 22, he realizes how precious life really is and how much he missed waiting for his big chance—life and passion are connected. He’s learning the lesson.
Executing the New Plan: Using his lesson learned, Joe improvises a new piece of music, putting himself into the zone so that, with Moonwind’s help, he finds 22, who’s become a scary-looking lost soul. 22 wants nothing to do with Joe, but he follows him/her and hands over the whirly bird from 22’s visit to Earth. Joe is helping someone who can’t help themselves—the true action of a hero. He returns the badge to 22, and together they leap out of the Great Before, hurtling towards Earth. His transformation is complete as he couldn’t have done this without learning the Out of the Bottle lesson.
Final Image: As a reward for his heroic action, the Jerrys allow Joe to return to Earth for the rest of his temporal life—amending the count so obsessive Terry won’t notice. Joe doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life, but as he steps out of the front door of his apartment, he plans to live every minute of it. He’s learned to live life to the fullest, as we all could.