All that jazz, plus more: A review of ‘Soul’

Published December 26, 2020, 2:39 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Pixar’s ‘Soul’ is their latest animated feature; and once again, as directed by Peter Docter who gave us ‘Up’ and ‘Inside Out’, it’s a potent & thought-provoking examination of what makes us people tick. In the form of enjoyable, vividly imagined worlds of the Real, the After, and the Before; Docter employs the animated feature to tackle several existential questions – and if anything, this is the most ‘adult’ Pixar treatment to the quandary of how to find happiness & fulfillment in Life.

The premise has to do Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a music teacher in a local New York neighborhood school. Made a regular employee/instructor at the School, you can’t help but notice the look of mixed feelings and disappointment. He’s long harbored the dream of being a performing jazz pianist, and sees tenure as a possible nail in the coffin of that dream. A friend asks him to audition to sub on the keyboard for a club performance of Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a renowned saxophone player, and Joe gets the gig. More than overjoyed and elated, he’s so lightheaded he misses an open manhole, and ends up near to death in a hospital bed. The big idea is he’s being so close to his dream, and now so far.

In ‘Coco’ fashion, a ‘spirit Joe’ comes into play, standing on the proverbial Stairway to Heaven (or the After Life); but with that prospect of the big break still on his mind, this Joe-soul plays hard ball, fights to head to the back of the line, and ends up in a world where nascent ‘souls’ are being mentored by past souls. It’s here that he encounters 22 (Tina Fey) – a soul who refuses to head to Earth, and thinks Life is overrated. So frustrated dreamer meets stubborn cynic – two very prevalent dispositions we find among the people who inhabit this world; the one who’s always dreaming but never fulfills his/her dream, and the one who thinks Life just isn’t worth living.

It’s against this juxtaposition, that Docter teases our imagination, with the styles of animation Art used to represent particular ‘worlds’ a joy to behold. The real world is photorealistic and totally immersive. The After is created in a style of its own, while the Before is all pastel colors and the animated souls cuteness personified. Then there’s a sub-Before world populated by one line figures – the Jerry’s – and this world has its own Picasso-charm.

There’s a little switching trick that happens mid-film and no spoiler here, but it’s a doozy – as sequences like at the barber shop, and meeting Joe’s mother, and even the trombone-playing student from Joe’s music class, become very special moments that will linger in our hearts long after we’ve finished watching the film.

The music is also a very special aspect of this film. I love Jazz, so it was only natural that I’d gravitate to the music of Joe’s ‘real world’, and how he tries to explain what made jazz music so special to him – thank you, John Batiste. Then there’s the music of the After and Before worlds, all done as New Age-electronic music, as provided by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. It’s wonderful how they looked to different composers and arrangers to help create distinct worlds.

Full kudos to the voicing of Joe Gardner by Jamie Foxx; he actually creates a voice for Joe and doesn’t rely on his own voice. And you will fall in love with Tina Fey as 22. Other standout voices include British comedian Richard Ayoade, Questlove, talk show host Graham Norton, Daveed Diggs, and Rachel House. In fact, it’s been noted that this is the first Pixar film with a predominantly Black cast of voices. Personally, I don’t think that’s the point at all. It’s the rich talent that leaves a mark, and makes this such a memorable film.

The only thing with Soul is that I always felt previous Pixar films had the magical quality of simultaneously being something children would enjoy and absorb at their own level, while adults would still take something from the film, and appreciate how it could also operate on a mature level. With Soul, until the second half of the film kicks in, I think adults may be at a loss explaining to the children what’s going on, or that the children may find their attention wandering. I certainly hope not, as Soul is truly a very special animated feature; and in this pandemic year, it does send out a strong message about Happiness and Fulfillment.

In fact, the one thing I found quite daring is how one aspect of the message is that fulfilling one’s dream isn’t necessarily the road to Happiness. And there’s also the warning of how being too obsessed with that one dream, to the exclusion of living a Life, won’t take us very far. Lessons that aren’t that simplistic. Bravo, Soul!

(Soul opens December 25th in particular theaters in MGCQ cities & areas. Or you can catch it on the Disney streaming app).