2020, PG, 102 mins.
Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner (voice) / Tina Fey as 22 (voice) / Ahmir-Khalib Thompson as Curly (voice) / Phylicia Rashād as Libba Gardner (voice) / Daveed Diggs as Paul (voice) / John Ratzenberger as (voice) / Richard Ayoade as Jerry (voice) / Graham Norton as Moonwind (voice) / Rachel House as Terry (voice) / Alice Braga as Jerry (voice) / Angela Bassett as DorotheaDirected by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers / Written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones
Pixar's SOUL is one of their weirdest animated films, but that's precisely what makes it one of their finest of their recent crop of offerings.
It not only
represents an audaciously strange change of pace for the Oscar winning
studio, but it also emerges as a most refreshing kind of innovative change
up after their mediocre and easily forgettable ONWARD
from earlier this year. SOUL
tells an intriguing tale of a jazz pianist that dies (sort of) and then
gets whisked to the afterlife and remains stuck there (yeah, not the most
light hearted of fare). Much
of this film is predictably silly, but it's commendably intriguing and
thoughtful work from Pixar (this represents their first film featuring an
African American protagonist...more on that it a bit), not to mention that
it delves into the pleasures of the origins of jazz and the meaning of
life and living with one's choices in it.
SOUL doesn't dig as deep as it thinks it does, but it's still a
clever and pleasant minded existentialist effort.
The story quickly
introduces us middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced well by
Jamie Foxx), who spends much of his days desperately trying to get his
greenhorn students to learn the limitless joys of jazz history, but with
middling levels of success. Joe
is a talented, but sad figure, mostly because he feels that he's slumming
in the school system when he once had aspirations of being a big deal
musician in the Big Apple. Because
of his failure to secure long-term work there, Joe decided to devote his
life to the monotony of his school gig, but at least it's one that pays
the bills and offers him some semblance of security (this pleases his
mother, voiced by Phylicia Rashad). And
Joe does indeed love and respect his students, but he nevertheless feels
that his true career dreams have evaded him forever, leaving the
downtrodden teacher in a melancholic funk.
Fate steps in
when he's given the opportunity to audition for a potentially lucrative
job doing what he loves, which would allow for him to cast away his soul
sucking teaching job. After
leaving his audition on a euphoric high and thinking that he nailed it,
poor Joe accidentally falls through an open manhole.
Almost instantaneously, he finds himself in a strange and mystical
afterlife land know as the Great Before, where the souls of the dead go to
spend eternity. This, of
course, greatly alarms him. He thinks that he got royally screwed
just as he was about to become a smash hit jazz star, and thusly tries to
find a manner to make it back to Earth and back into his body to be given
a second chance. Even though there are various afterlife sponsors that come to
Joe's aid to help acclimate him to his new surroundings (including 22,
voiced by Tina Fey), Joe remains doggedly determined to find some sort of
cosmic loophole to get him back home...and he does manage to find one,
albeit with an unwelcome catch.
co-directed by Pete Docter, who previously made some of Pixar's most
beloved of animated classics, such as one of my personal favorites in UP.
One of the finer compliments that I'll pay him and his studio is
that SOUL feels less like a mass marketed product high on cute factor
that's designed to sell merchandise and is more interested in telling a
modest and thoughtful story about big, relatable ideas, and it does so in
some highly unexpected and welcome ways.
SOUL seems both intimately rendered and small scaled while
simultaneously coming off as wondrously ambitious with its scope and
themes. There are certainly
aspects of the film that bare a superficial similarity to Docter's own INSIDE
OUT (I was in the large minority in not liking it all too much),
but those comparisons are fleeting at best, seeing as SOUL manages to
concoct its own tonal and visual identity that's all its own while
tackling some very fundamental questions about the shared human
experience: What's my life all about and what's to come of me after it? SOUL doesn't really have the raw nerve to go down any
truly dark avenues with such queries and sometimes paints too lively of an
overall vibe throughout considering the subject matter, but I appreciated
the film's aspirations and the journey it takes viewers on.
And, boy oh boy,
does Docter and company ever have a field day in conjuring up the Great
Before afterlife itself, which aesthetically switches things up immensely
when Joe makes his transition to it.
Figures have a simplistic, two dimensionality to them, made with
Cubist-like brush strokes and hard edged lines that hint at no beginning
or ending. And everything has
this neon glow that feels positively retro as far as any Pixar film is
concerned. The art direction
and design fundamentals here are so playfully trippy and winning, which is
also complimented by the relative smorgasbord of superb music played in
the background throughout, provided by a very atypical synthesized score
by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Beyond
that, SOUL is wall to wall with, yes, such wonderful R&B music
reverberating from scene to scene, which shows that the makers here are
demonstrating a great appreciation for the artform itself and giving it
its proper due. SOUL may
largely deal with aspects of life, death, and what lurks for all of us
into the unknown, but it also has its finger on the pulse of the black
experience and things that matter so crucially to them.
That latter element doesn't really see the light of day in most big
budget studio animated fare.
It's a truly
appreciative thing that SOUL contains, as mentioned, the studio's first
African American protagonist, which is important in itself, and Jamie
Foxx's presence and voice work is memorably stellar.
With this pioneering creative choice, though, comes one nagging and
inescapable reality: Instead of SOUL spending all of its time with its
black characters, it opts to go the out-of-body route that takes its black
lead and transforms him into something else for what seems like an
eternity of the picture. That
will have some sounding critical alarm bells and serve as a point of great
distraction. But SOUL still
deserves mad props for at least trying to make a largely black lives
centric feature film, and one that celebrates its people and their
contributions to the world of music, which might help override the
aforementioned body swapping white washing.
Still, other elements kind of wore down on me as the film progressed,
like its somewhat busy and meandering scripting, which sometimes left me
asking questions about the story's own internal logic and rules.
I'd also add that when SOUL manages to return Joe back to life on
Earth it does so with a switch, which some will either laughingly embrace
or roll their eyes at with incredulity.
No spoilers, but for the cat lover in me, I found myself somewhere
in the middle.