Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after you see the Pixar animated feature Soul.
My young daughter is always asking where she was before she was born. That’s a question she can find an answer to in Pixar‘s Soul, which portrays a realm called the Great Before where our spirits are developed prior to the start of our physical lives. Of course, other recent animated features — namely The Boss Baby and Storks — have shown her a fantasy of where fully-formed babies come from, but Soul offers a more mature existential look at the before- and after-life for audiences of all ages, as imagined by directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers and their crew.
As original as Soul is, though, the movie definitely borrows from cinematic ideas of the past. And like any Pixar movie since the studio’s first feature, Soul pays homage to its predecessors as well as to other classic films that aren’t necessarily direct influences. Below is a list of just some of the titles that either definitely informed the creation of Soul or just reminded me, one of its viewers, of a similar work of the past. As usual, there are some other movies mentioned as additional suggested viewing, as well. And this list also has a bonus recommendation for a relevant TV series. Add them all to your watchlist.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Just as I recommend Soul in my list of movies to watch after Wonder Woman 1984, I’m paying back the favor here. Both movies were released on Christmas and similarly involve a spiritual possession. This year has seen a remarkable trend in body-swap and soul-transference plots, including the horror-comedy Freaky, the sci-fi film Possessor, an episode of Lovecraft Country, and Pixar’s own short film Out. But both Soul and Wonder Woman 1984 specifically follow the sort where the spirit of a deceased character is deposited into a body that is not their own, whether it be a cat or some random stylish ’80s dude. I know, not everyone likes the Wonder Woman sequel, but at least I’m not recommending the movie where Kevin Spacey’s mind becomes trapped in a cat’s body.
Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017)
Soul is Pixar’s ninth feature in six years and only the fourth non-sequel. Outside of The Good Dinosaur, these original features seem to indicate the studio is on an existential kick. This era begins with Inside Out, which was also helmed by Soul co-director (and now studio head) Pete Docter. Like Soul, it’s a story of two realms, the physical human world and the metaphysical psychological realm of a young girl’s emotions, which is full of abstraction. Two years later, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s Coco took us from the real-world streets of Mexico into the Land of the Dead, a very different interpretation of the afterlife from the one seen in Soul. Combine the two, and you get the concept behind the new movie. I didn’t include this year’s Onward, which also deals with resurrecting a deceased person, since it doesn’t fit as well with the other three.
If you want a movie generally about or involving jazz musicians, I could recommend a few: Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Basil Dearden’s All Night Long, which adapts Othello to the jazz world, Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight, a few biopics here and there, like Bird, and maybe some documentaries as well. But that’s just a list of great jazz movies. The Oscar-nominated 2010 animated feature Chico & Rita at least follows a struggling jazz pianist, but it’s still hard to relate that film to Soul. On the other hand, Ray is probably too easy a recommendation. The biopic of pianist and singer/songwriter Ray Charles stars Jamie Foxx in an Oscar-winning performance, and so it’s too perfect to pass up given that Foxx also voices the jazz-pianist lead character in Soul.
Defending Your Life (1991)
Albert Brooks stars in his own movie about a guy, well, defending his life after he dies in a car accident and arrives in a sort of purgatory realm. The idea is that your judgment is conducted in a literal tribunal court where everyone must make a case for their time on Earth being spent well-enough to ascend to Heaven. Or they’re reincarnated in order to try the whole life thing over again. In an interview with Docter and Powers and producer Dana Murray for Collider, Drew Taylor brings up Defending Your Life, to which Docter responds:
“That’s just such a great example of humor in death, and Albert Brooks is fantastic. I also find that they did a good job in that filmmaking… There was a lot of exposition and it’s always entertaining, and they go to the Past Life Pavilion, or they’re watching examples of his life to make a point. And so, that gave us hope in our film that we could do a similar thing where a lot of stuff that could be didactic could be also presented with lightness and a sense of fun.”
Check out the rest of the interview for further discussion of influences including Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, both of which like Soul and Defending Your Life involve viewings of flashbacks of a person’s life (“Those two are these weird pairs, opposing pairs of films,” Docter says; “I’d forgotten how dark it was,” Powers adds about Capra’s holiday favorite). Docter also mentions the 1978 movie Heaven Can Wait, which I’ll get to in a moment.