Soul (2020)
Soul (2020)

Genre: Fairy Tale and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 2020 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Pete Docter Actors: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Rachel House, Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Donnell Rawlings

 


 

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ew York band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t give up hope, despite the fact that his middle school class of musicians is distracted, disinterested, or just plain terrible at their instruments. When the principal informs him that he’ll finally be a full-time instructor, he’s reluctant to view that as good news – even though his unsupportive mother (Phylicia Rashad) practically demands that he accept so that he can stop the dead-end gigging to embrace a sensible, reliable career. But he’s far more interested in playing the piano, frequently getting lost in the language of the keys, improvising brisk flourishes with pleasing fluidity.

“Just don’t tell my mom about this.” When Joe gets a call from a former student for an opening in a series of shows with Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and her jazz quartet, he’s ecstatic. Her performances are legendary and it’ll be a huge step up for his musical career. But as he excitedly hurries home, ignoring construction zones and heavy traffic, he accidentally falls down a manhole, resulting in a trip to the great beyond.

As it turns out, the great beyond is actually the great before – rebranded as a “You Seminar.” While Joe’s corporeal body is stuck in a holding pattern, his soul – which is a marshmallow-like, blobby caricature – tries desperately to return to Earth, but to no avail. After sneaking into a subsection of the afterlife as a mentor, where he must aid youthful souls to acquire a special “spark” to complete their personalities, he’s assigned to soul 22 (Tina Fey): a particularly troublesome critter with a sizable track record of mischief aimed at remaining detached from an earthly body (or, basically, staying comfortably unemployed). “I’ve had thousands of mentors who have failed and now hate me.”

As with many of Pixar’s projects, the brief setup is just that – an initial premise that soon takes a wild turn toward the unexpected. The creativity is exceptional (though it tends to remind of previous productions), yet the animation switches from extremely realistic environments and objects and textures adorning or surrounding exaggerated, cartoonish human characters, to cute but simplistic Candy Land-like gumdrop avatars (something of a visual disappointment considering the potential for this company’s technological and artistic innovations). In many ways, the fantastical landscapes of this colorful waystation-purgatory (populated by fluffy, wispy creatures like Moonwind Stardust [Graham Norton] and stick-figure angels) resemble the world of “Inside Out” (though not as concrete or specifically defined).

Amusingly, the plot continues to grow weirder; what began as a placid examination of an unfulfilled, middle-aged jazz musician’s oppressive mundanity transitions into a sci-fi/fantasy misadventure involving all sorts of flamboyant theoretical constructs and unpredictable components – ranging from an impatient therapy cat to out-of-body experiences to astrotransmigration. In the process, both Joe and 22 learn a thing or two about happiness, honesty, themselves, personal value, worthwhile relationships, inspiration, and the very meaning of life. Here, music plays an important role in redemption and second chances, but it’s actually much less significant on the mood than one might have assumed from a jazz pianist lead character (Michael Giacchino’s music is notably absent, composed instead by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross); in the end, contentment comes from a drastically different source – and revelations about purpose prove only slightly as emotional as anticipated from Pixar’s poignant body of work. Sadly, “Soul” is never quite as funny, heartfelt, or moving as the pictures that preceded it, disappointingly leaving major points of satisfaction curiously unresolved or unexplored.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10