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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Soul


Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter loves to take challenging and adult ideas, and explore them in funny and touching ways with his movies.  In Up, he explored the ideas of loss and moving on with your life.  In Inside Out, he explored the mind of a preteen girl, and offered a complex look at depression, how our emotions can be muted, and the importance of sadness - an emotion that some seem to shun and hide away as much as possible.  If that movie was focused on what was going on in our brain, then his latest film Soul goes much deeper.  It wants to explore what makes us who we are, and that one individual thing we have that sparks our interest, and makes life worth living.

In the film, we follow a man named Joe Gardner (voice by Jamie Foxx), whose sole purpose in life is music, particularly jazz.  As a boy, Joe was taken by his father to a local jazz club, and he felt an immediate connection with the music unlike anything he had ever felt before.  Since then, all he has thought about is the music that moves him, and to perform it.  Joe is now middle-aged, and stuck teaching an uninterested middle school music class.  He's been given the chance to teach full time, which would mean financial security for the first time in his life.  Then he gets a call from a former student (Questlove) who has been performing with the legendary Jazz Diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) for the past few years.  The piano player in her quartet has dropped out at the last second before a gig, and Joe is given the chance to audition and join the band.

Joe aces the audition, gets the job, and is riding so high emotionally during his walk home that he's not looking where he's going, causing him to fall down an open manhole.  This is where the film truly begins, as Joe's soul (represented by a blue, blobby little figure) finds itself leaving his physical form, and ascending a celestial escalator up to The Great Beyond, where all souls go when their time on Earth is up.  Joe, obviously, wants nothing to do with this.  His life was just about to truly start, he feels.  He goes in the opposite direction of the afterlife, and finds himself in The Great Before, an alternate purgatory filled with green fields and pastel colors where young souls who have not yet been born create and shape the personalities that they will have during their lives on Earth, and are guided by strange beings that resemble Picasso sketches, and are all named Jerry.  The little souls who are getting ready to be born need mentors who will shape them before their journey to Earth.  Joe jumps at the chance, realizing that he can mentor a kid until they get their Earth Pass (the ticket that allows them to enter the human world), then swipe the kid's Pass, and use it to return to his body.

Unfortunately, it's not going to be that easy, as Joe gets paired up with a little soul named No. 22 (Tina Fey).  She's a soul who refuses to be born, and has no interest in going to Earth.  No. 22 has had a large number of famous mentors over the years that have tried and failed to guide her, including Abraham Lincoln (she enraged him), Mohammad Ali ("You are the greatest...pain in the butt!"), and Mother Theresa (she made her cry).  Joe has to somehow find a way to inspire her that life is worth living.  I'm going to have to be vague here in order to avoid spoilers, but both souls do eventually find themselves on Earth, just not in the physical forms that they intended.  The remainder of the film is a buddy comedy/drama as the two spirits bond with each other, and learn that life can truly be worth living, and that it can be even if it's not the one that you planned.  

Much has been made of the fact that Soul is the first Pixar movie to feature a largely African American cast, but the movie is smart not to draw too much attention to this, or to feel like it is self-congratulating for this fact.  It's first and foremost a very human story about the dreams that shape us, and the everyday experiences that we sometimes take for granted, as well as the people in our lives who sometimes seem to be standing in our way, but are really trying to support us.  The film tackles a lot of themes, but does so in a way that is hilariously funny, never heavy handed, and ultimately tear jerking, as is usually the norm in Pete Docter's films.  The movie is also one of the few Pixar films I can think of where the setting is truly as much a character in the film as the people are.  It expertly uses its New York settings of music clubs, barber shops, subways and even street corner stores that is likely to make many people nostalgic for a pre-pandemic time for the city.  It perfectly captures the energy and life that the streets can have, and the autumn colors only add to the beauty.

Like the best films to come out of the studio, there is no real villain here, although there is an antagonist in the form of a celestial being who has figured out that a soul that was supposed to go to the Great Beyond has escaped and is hunting it down.  It's a human-driven story made up of small wonderful moments, such as the interactions between Joe and his mother (Phylicia Rashad), and the relationship that eventually grows between the two spirits as they spend time on Earth.  Naturally, music also plays a large role in the film, and we have a fantastic music score here provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with additional jazz contributions by Jonathan Batiste.  We also have some wonderfully stylized designs for the film's afterlife settings, which may not be quite as elaborate as the ones featured a few years ago in Pixar's Coco, but have an appropriately cool and calming energy that works well with the story being told here.  


After the disappointing Onward from earlier this year (one of the last films to get a theatrical release this year), Soul represents the very best that the Pixar animators and storytellers can do.  This is an example of a bold vision that has been brought to life with tremendous care and humor, and equally so by a wonderful voice cast.  It's a tremendous film all around. 


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