A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2021

SOUL jjj

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 Dorothea

Directed 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. 



SOUL was 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. 

I don't want to come off as too picky or hard on SOUL, though.  It somewhat frustrated me that it was a tad too soft pedaled and safe with the material for my tastes, and for as grand as the film's thematic ambitions are it ultimately didn't quite end on a thoroughly profound note that pays off on them.  But SOUL is another reliably beautiful computer animated wonderland to get lost in, and it displays great, unbridled fun in going in more stylistically daring routes than a lot of other works in Pixar's catalogue.  I also admired the poignantly rendered voice performances that gave the film a much needed sense of dramatic urgency.  And, yes, aspects of SOUL are nuttier than a fruit cake, but the sheer oddness of the film is what makes it an endearing difference maker for Pixar and worth investing in.  And best of all, it's not another cash grabbing and unnecessary sequel or a would-be franchise starter; SOUL tries to be its own deliriously and delightfully bizarre thing, which is most gratifying. 

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