Review – Soul

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Overview

Synopsis Joe is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn't quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is jazz -- and he's good. But when he travels to another realm to help someone find their passion, he soon discovers what it means to have soul.

Length 1 hour 47 minutes

Release Date December 25, 2020

 

Rating PG

Distribution Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directing Pete Docter

Writing Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers

Composition Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jonathan Batiste

Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett

Most of the old vanguard of Pixar’s golden age seem to have gone the way of the dodo.  Gone are the reverence for the majesty of the unknown in Andrew Stanton’s work.  With what perilous end has the relentless sense of style and sophistication of Brad Bird been met?  To what bottomless pit has the quietly brilliant vision of John Lasseter been cast?  Okay, we might not want to delve into that last one…

But hey, at least the Docter is still in.  Whatever eldritch abomination has consumed the flame of such greats as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story has yet to take the soul of what brought us my favorite Pixar film thus far in Inside Out.  His latest experiment with ideas most would consider far too big and esoteric for a family film comes in the humble form of Soul.  Look, I’ll take just about anything with this pandemic going on, so let’s get to it.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Joe falls down a manhole (nongraphic), and his body appears dead or dying. He’s hospitalized and looks disheveled/jittery while walking around the city. It seems like Joe has died in a couple of scenes. Physical comedy as Joe makes his way around NYC with another soul controlling his body.

Language/Crude Humor: One use of “crap.”

Sexual Content: None.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: A lot of metaphysical exposition, but nothing overtly spiritual.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: Promotes following your dreams, but not at the exclusion of human connections and relationships. Encourages not taking life for granted and savoring small, everyday moments. Strong family relationships and friendships are highlighted, as are having passions and interests. No life is meaningless if you feel love and have friendships. One person’s “spark” may not fulfill another; we all have our own purpose to find. Themes also include compassion, empathy, and perseverance.

Joe is a dedicated teacher, a disciplined musician, and a devoted son. He’s committed to 22 even when it endangers his own humanity. 22 grows as a character and discovers the small joys of humanity.

Young viewers will learn a bit about jazz music, what it means to be mentored, and what motivates people to live their best life.

Review

I once heard a story about Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson while they were out on a camping trip.  One night, Holmes shook his friend awake and asked, “Look up at the sky.  What does that tell you?”  Watson believed that Holmes was expecting a very erudite answer and delivered as such:

“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?”

Holmes responded by saying, “Watson, you idiot.  It means that someone has stolen our tent!”

Among the many great services that Pixar has given us over the years is the healthy reminder is that being grand in your scope isn’t the same as being meaningful.  The dangers and difficulties of a rat seeking a career as a gourmet chef can be just as enthralling as a story of a band of superheroes saving the world from a mad titan.  In fact, such provincial offerings can be even more rewarding since they position themselves in closer proximity to our regular life experiences.  Few among us are ever going to do something so grand as putting a stop some villain’s world-ending schemes, or even catch a criminal.  But all of us live, and the folks at Pixar recognize that to be amazing enough to warrant a feature.

The opposite end the spectrum of human experience has just a long of a pattern of reverence within not only Pixar’s oeuvre but within the entire history of American animated family filmmaking.  Ever since that haunting image of Snow White’s lifeless arm slumping onto the hardwood floor from ingesting a poisoned apple, the finality of human life has found itself as a regular part of the home video treatment.  Pixar, determined to expand upon what came before, made it their ambition to reflect upon the afterlife in their animated efforts as well as death.  Coco, from what I can tell, was the first explicit foray into what comes in the hereafter that Pixar undertook, but one could make the argument that such ethereal musings were present in Pixar’s body of work long before then.

I’ve become fascinated by the reading of Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3 as something of a perilous trek through a sort of “toy afterlife”, with journeys through the toy equivalent of heaven, purgatory, and even ending with the toys grasping each other in a loving bond of courage as they face a fatal plunge into a blazing inferno.  Cars 3 on one level dealt with the “afterlife” of the death of one’s career, though that may be more accurately seen as a reflection on the anxieties of male obsolescence rather than the actual afterlife of the soul (I recognize that for some schools of thought, the two are indistinguishable).  That’s been a running topic in Pixar history ever since Woody saw his position as Andy’s favorite toy being threatened way back in 1995.  Other examples of such insecurities can be found in Robert Parr’s mid-life crisis in The Incredibles and in the surprise antagonist of Toy Story 2.  But these days, Pixar’s been trying to be a bit more universal in their existential musings.

Ironically, in being more “universal”, Pixar’s become humbler and more circumscribed in their scope.  What’s forever astounded me about this animation house is how they can make the ordinary seem so extraordinary.  How can the devastations suffered by a simple clownfish ring with the same haunting dread and misery as having half the population of the universe being snapped out of existence?  How can one be just as invested in a group of monsters who harness the screams of children as a means of fuel as they would be in a story far more conventional?  However they manage to do it, Pixar in general, and Pete Docter in particular most recently, has made the ordinary extraordinary most explicitly the 23rd Pixar release of Soul.  It’s probably more fitting to say that he found the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Soul introduces us to a common average Joe who is literally named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), in the middle of a crisis similar to that of Mr. Incredible’s, except where Mr. Parr had at least the comfort of memories of greatness to reference, Mr. Gardner has reached middle age feeling that he has never had his potential as a jazz pianist ever fully realized.  Early on, Joe comes to a crossroads in his life.  In the same day, he’s given an opportunity to secure a financially stable but personally unfulfilling position as a middle school band instructor and a chance to get a foot in the door as a stage performer with venerated saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and her quartet.  Despite the earnest concerns of his mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad), Joe leaps at the opportunity to pursue what he sees as his meaning in life.  This, unfortunately leads him to his untimely demise at the bottom of a manhole, and his soul on the tram to The Great Beyond.

I can already hear from afar the complaints of certain folks that in the first Pixar movie with a black lead and a largely black cast, the protagonist can’t even survive for ten minutes without getting killed off, spending huge swaths of the movie as a disembodied non-racial Casper-like wisp with the signature fedora and spectacles in tow.  I can honestly say that anyone who’s bringing such complaints are completely missing the point.  This is to be a universally human story, and that it manages to be one while deeply couched in thick layers of a distinctly New York Black American culture is a testimony to the ageless wisdom of a former slave:

“Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.” (“I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me.”)

While Docter himself is unashamedly a man of the Faith, managing to work his worldview out in such a way as to make it welcoming to a largely secular audience in an animated family film about the afterlife must have been a difficulty similar to what the Apostle Paul faced in preparation for his sermon on Mars Hill.  Upon death, Joe and other souls are being conveyed along a belt to a mass of light in an arrangement that called to my mind, at least, popular depictions of Jacob’s Ladder.  The significance of this ethereal transferal is undermined by the souls fizzling out upon reaching the light with sound effects that caused me to recall a throwaway gag in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, in which a poor fly named Harry was irresistibly enticed by a bug zapper, only to be sent careening to his doom once reaching the bewitching luminescence.  Not sure if that’s the impression Docter wishes to leave us with, but it is what it is.

Joe, of course, believes that it is just far too soon for him to give up on life right when it was about to start, so he manages to worm his way off of the path to The Great Beyond, and winds up landing into the pastorally sublime area of The Great Before, the place where preborn souls are assigned a personality and prepared for their journey to be born on Earth.  Whereas the realm of the gateway to The Great Beyond had some fairly strong biblically aesthetic inspiration, The Great Before visually reads and feels more like some odd cross between a seasonal allergy relief commercial and a Microsoft press conference video presentation circa 1996.

It is here that the screenplay penned by Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers chooses to lay out the rather complicated mechanics of soul and body that make up the machinery of the plot.  This can be seen as both the film’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness, depending on what perspective you bring to it, dear reader.  It’s very much understandable that in order to sell these ideas without getting into Don Hertzfeldt levels of raw esoteric existentialism, some tidying and simplifying of the metaphysics was in order.  At the same time, I can see how the mechanization can be seen as a little too neat, nearly to the point of being toyetic.

In order for the preborn souls to be given a pass to depart into a human body on Earth, they must be given a full personality as marked on a 7-notched sticker pinned to their chests, showing their quirks, idiosyncrasies, faults, strengths, and their “spark” which denotes a particular passion or interest they have.  It all gets a little bit expositional at times, lacking the fluency of both scholarly explanation and plot development as seen in Docter’s last release of Inside Out.  Credit must be given where it is due in that Docter and his fellow writers don’t take the real-world subjects that they reference in their narratives lightly.  Sadness’ reading of “Long Term Memory Data Selection via Channel Subgrouping” and her informed explanation of the four stages of abstract thought in Inside Out weren’t just randomly constructed jargon or technobabble.  These guys do their homework.

An even greater amount of homework had to have been conducted for the embellishment of Soul.  The results of thorough studies into philosophy, ontology, and many other metaphysical fields of interest are on display here, with creative liberties being taken to ensure the audience isn’t lost in the mire.  One of the more prominent operators in the realms of the hereafter are a band of sentient manifestations of some abstract universal constructs, all conspicuously named “Jerry” (voiced by Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, and a few others playing minor roles).  Their design as a vaguely humanoid but also shape-shifting arrangement of lines of light are said to be a form that our minds can comprehend.  One among their rank is an antagonistic accountant of sorts named Terry (Rachel House) who plays a more involved role in response to Joe’s cheating the rules of the universe.

As part of Joe’s plan to sneak his way back into his body on Earth, he opts to present himself as a “mentor”, an experienced soul who helps to guide unborn souls to their spark for life so they may gain valid passage to physical birth.  He gets assigned to the deuteragonist of the story, an insufferably rambunctious unborn soul named “22” (Tina Fey).  Considering the souls are assigned numbers that total in the hundreds of billions at this point, it’s clear that 22 has been in this limbo stage of pre-life for an incredibly long time, refusing to enter natural life.  While 22 is clearly meant to bear the heft of comical relief that Soul has to offer, I was brought to consider something of human nature that I seldom do by 22’s character.  If given the choice while in the womb, would most of us even choose to be born or simply remain there for as long as we could?  Why do you think babies cry during delivery?  Of course, if a baby doesn’t leave the womb, it dies.  If 22 doesn’t leave The Great Before, nothing is lost.  Moreover, nothing is gained.

After having been mentored literally by the finest minds and souls the human race has to offer, including such gifted persons as Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Carl Jung, and Archimedes, Joe manages to be the one that brings 22 to a full epiphany of what life itself has to offer, and it’s done through accident.  After striking a deal to relieve 22 of the pass to Earth, the two come to yet a third realm of the hereafter known as “The Zone”, a space between the physical and the spiritual where people’s souls reside when they’re deeply engaged with their passions.  A band of traveling mystics led by a hippie sign twirler named Moonwind (Graham Norton) are able to slip into and out of The Zone with ease through various meditative methods and aid “lost souls” in The Zone to get back to their natural lives.  A heavier film would have most likely marked these mystics unironically as psychedelic substance abusers, but here, they provide a somewhat unnatural means of giving Joe a second chance at life.  It would be a grave disservice to go any further into the plot from here, as what follows is a deftly handled dynamism of realization for both Joe and 22, showing that both of them had quite a bit to learn about life and how to live it.

A lesser filmmaker would have presented Joe’s aim of getting his first big break as the grand denouement to his entire arc.  But Docter is smarter than that, and willing to present one of the most stinging criticisms to the whole creative community that I think any storyteller could give:

Your passion is NOT your purpose.  Thinking that it is detaches you from life and soils you in the dross of obsession, making you a “lost soul”.

There’s an exchange of a sort between Joe and 22 in which Joe responds to 22’s fascination with mundane human activities by saying “That’s not a purpose.  That’s just regular old living”.  The film repeats that statement during a moment of literal cosmic reflection that mirrors certain sequences from Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, insinuating that “regular old living” is an amazing thing in and of itself.  It’s been said that one of the things that makes human beings unique from other animals is our ability to be ungrateful.  That, above all else, is what I find that Soul encourages us to have: gratitude for the “mundane”, because the mundane is nothing short of a miracle.

The technical accomplishments of Soul deserve their own tokens of praise.  The character design from art director Daniel Lopez Muñoz is a great departure from what’s come before in Pixar’s filmography, with stylized exaggerations of facial features, body movements, and expressions being lovingly rendered and shot is some daring camera work.  Ranges of focus are meticulously chosen to give just the right sense of unease, openness, intimacy, and sublimity as needed.  Even when Joe is lovingly trilling notes across the ivory keys, the animators do not shy away from showing almost every finger motion in perfect tune with the jazz arrangements composed by Jonathan Batiste.  Even the crowd animations deserve a great deal of applause, being among the best that I’ve ever seen anywhere.

I’ve heard from some expressions of disappointment in Soul’s rather open-ended and ambiguous conclusion.  At first, I even thought the same.  Upon reflection, I find the choice to leave the direction of Joe’s life to the judgment of the speculator to be the most responsible option the screenwriters could have made.  The intention here was to not let the readers settle and fixate on any particular choice as the categorical “right” decision, as though to make the other decision would be a wasted choice.  Whether Joe lives as a middle school band instructor or as part of a highly lauded jazz quartet, either way, it will still be his life to live.  Either choice, lived to the fullest, would be pretty amazing.

Positives

+ High-minded topics and scope
+ Immediate and intimate scale
+ Excellent payoffs
+ Sublime atmosphere
+ Universally resonant

Negatives

- Metaphysics are potentially far too simple
- Some scenes deflate the significance

The Bottom Line

It probably won’t topple Inside Out as my favorite Pixar film, but I appreciate the effort. And it’s just what we needed this year.

 

9.1

Tyrone Barnes

2 Comments

  1. Maurice Pogue on January 29, 2021 at 11:05 am

    Dr. Namwali Serpell fabulously articulates the innate problems Disney/Pixar exacerbates through creating a paradox such as “a universally human story…deeply couched in thick layers of a distinctly New York Black American.”

    https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/pixars-troubled-soul

    Like Serpell, I was also waiting for the moment when the film would distinguish between “He has a soul,” and the AAVE version, “He’s GOT soul.” Eddie Griffin in Undercover Brother comes to mind; that movie transmits the cultural capital of a black handshake—or giving dap—as a James Bond-like password to unlock a door. When finished, the computer says “Blackness confirmed! You got soul, brotha!”

    Disney/Pixar’s Soul will forever be unable to attain that level of confirmation, because it forfeits its potential through a substantial stretch of the film in which black skin, black*ness* is upheld as palatable when appropriated by whiteness/a white soul (Tina Fey’s VA gag as a “a middle-aged white lady” because “it annoys people”). Unfortunate timing, given the past year’s revelation that there is an enclave of Rachael Doezal-likes who have been “passing” for BIPOC.

    It’s not (that) easy being [us]. Yet this becomes a gag when Joe as a cat says that it would be hard for him to hail a cab even if he were not wearing a hospital gown.

    This film needed something of a Coogler treatment, rather than “consulting.”

    Besides that, I agree that Inside Out does what this film does, but better.

    (Seriously, pizza? Soul food was RIGHT THERE!!!)

    • Tyrone Barnes on May 17, 2021 at 2:51 pm

      I’ve no doubt in my mind that the folks at Pixar would very much be in a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” position with you on this, Maurice. It has been far too frequent an occurrence where those of this school of thought dance back and forth between saying that the black characters portrayed a) aren’t “black enough” and b) “perpetuate harmful stereotypes”. Since Joe Gardner is very much a solidly written and developed Pixar protagonist who just happens to be black, with certain signifiers about him (in addition to what you’ve mentioned, the church and the barber shop being key social spots of his) to flesh that out, that he would be deemed by someone like Serpell as “not black enough” is sadly predictable.

      Moreover, to suggest that the pedestrian stereotype humor of a spoof movie like UNDERCOVER BROTHER should be considered a legitimate model for a Pixar protagonist is honestly so bizarre, I had to read it a few times to make sure you were being serious. Pete Docter is a master of insinuating multiple meanings in his work through deftly handled subtlety, but you would have him spell out all those meanings explicitly with corny alternative meanings of the word “soul” peppered throughout the script, wearing them on his sleeves with the deftness of a sledgehammer just to ensure that the character’s “blackness” (at least a low-brow stereotyped version of what constitutes “blackness”) is at the forefront, rather than letting the content of his character and his experience being the selling point. Such an approach would have been grossly incongruent with the tonality, purpose, and integrity of the film, and I, for one, am truly thankful that they didn’t tread that path.

      Even Dr. Serpell’s own writing betrays a very unhelpful perspective. He asks “How to make sure that this is how black people would really look, talk, act, feel?”, as though black people are some odd exotic species that are monolithic in their looks, manner of speech, behavior, or feelings. There are plenty of black men who look, speak, act, and feel just like Joe Gardner. To suggest that they’re not “black enough” is to speak with a underlying harmful attitude towards blacks like myself who naturally do not fit the mold of what people like Dr. Serpell (and, I take it, you) believe black people SHOULD be like in order to be “authentically black”.

      It’s also seems to me that you missed the entire point of 22’s character as well. As you may have noticed, 22 is written to not even have a gender, let alone a race. To draw a parallel between the development 22 undergoes in occupying Joe’s body to the likes of Rachel Dolezal because of Tina Fey’s performance really warrants a charge of the strawman fallacy. You’re confusing the character with the actor in making that suggestion.

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